Sunday, May 23rd, 2021

‘Supra singulos eorum’: a Sermon for Whitsunday

And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost (Acts 2).

You’ll recall that last week I said that we ought to approach the sacred liturgy a little as we might approach a work of art: which is to say that we must always try to see why this or that text is used, thereby giving us insight into what God means to do in us. To put it in another way, we ought to try to see the liturgical order as it is given to us to celebrate; because when we perceive order, we perceive truth—and that is no small thing, given what our Lord says in today’s Gospel: ‘The Holy Ghost . . . he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I have told you.’

Well, we can have the same approach when it comes to the saints. After all, we should always be thinking of the saints, because they are our brethren. They are the completed works of art that we hope someday to be, though we can in no way treat them as mere museum pieces. But I say this because if we would understand the nature and activity of the Holy Ghost, then I believe the saints are our best way to do this.

Because after all, the saints are not things; they are not merely objects for our study. As I said, we do not admire them as we do a vase on a table. This is so because the saints are people, people like you and me. And while on one level that seems obvious, on another level we do not sufficiently appreciate the fact. The saints are made of the same stuff as you and me.

Now, one of the ordinary works that must take place in the life of every saint is the gradual purification from sin. The Sacrament of Penance remits the guilt of our sins in an instant. When we leave the confessional after a good confession, we begin again, with a new start, restored in a certain way to our baptismal innocence. And yet there is still some work to be done. That work involves the purification of our memories; it involves a mature grasp of our sins—that is, an understanding of them which is neither too scrupulous nor nonchalant. That work involves neither living in the past, nor fearing the future. It involves not allowing our past or present sins to define us, while being able to peacefully realize that we are always sinners in need of God’s grace.

All of which is to say that we are ever in need of the grace of the Holy Ghost. The Roman Breviary contains formal prayers for the priest’s preparation for Holy Mass. Toward the end of those prayers, there are a series of rather beautiful collects directed to the Father, petitioning some work of the Holy Ghost (one of which is the collect for today’s Mass.) Another one of these prayers reads as follows:

O God, to whom every heart is open and every will speaks, and for whom no secret is hidden: purify the thoughts of our hearts by the outpouring of the Holy Ghost; so that we may merit to love you perfectly and praise you fittingly.

We tend to think of the Holy Ghost’s activity in terms of the charismatic gifts; but we see here that his work is more common and intimate. For we note in today’s epistle that when the Holy Ghost was first poured out on the infant Church, tongues as of fire came to rest ‘upon every one of them and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.’ That describes you and me. Here, we could easily make a digression about the effects of Confirmation.

Another one of these collects prays:

May the Paraclete, who proceeds from you, enlighten our minds, O Lord: and lead us, as your son has promised, into all truth.

And that is a direct reference to the Gospel we just heard. Man, by his rational nature, is open to truth; but sin has clouded our intellect and disordered the passions, and this makes the truth hard to come by. But the Holy Ghost gives the baptized special assistance to arrive at ‘all truth.’ Without that grace—which we may easily take for granted—we are adrift in the sea of the world.   

In the end, all of this has been to say that if we give special heed to the Holy Ghost, our purification will be the work he gradually does in us. For the Spirit has many works; but this purification of the inmost recesses of our souls is perhaps his most special and important. Just as the sequence says today: Reple cordis intima; That is, ‘fill the innermost places of our heart.’ And that is what the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity does in us.

Thus we have gone on at length simply to prove that the Holy Ghost is already constantly at work within us; but today we give special thanks to him, we direct our attention to his abiding work in us—for the more mindful we become of that work, the more he may deploy it in us. And when that happens, he may begin to make saints of us.   


{Art Credit: Juan Baptista Maino (1581-1649), Pentecost (1615-1620); The Prado}  

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