Sunday, May 28th, 2023

‘Renovabis faciem terræ’: a Sermon for Whitsun

Send forth your Spirit . . . & you shall renew the face of the earth” ( Ps 103 ).

It is not difficult at all to see how this passage is literally fulfilled in the springtime earth: around the rectory, the rhododendron are blooming and the lilacs have been giving their fragrance all week. Every New England meadow is alive with healthy grasses and flecked with buttercups and purple clover. If you and I rejoice in the natural renewal of the earth—as well we should—let us at least also see the spiritual analogy at work. The Holy Ghost and His activity is as real as springtime; and as marvelous as this natural renewal and beauty are, do we think that grace does anything less for the soul? 

Our next clause in the Pater Noster to consider is, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And the first comment made by Msgr Knox is one of caution. When we ask God to forgive as we forgive, we do this by analogy: by analogy because our forgiveness can never be the complete measure of God’s forgiveness. I hope you do not mind if I quote him at length:

Our forgiveness and God’s–believe me, there is no comparison. We forgive capriciously; we find it easier to overlook an offence in one who is naturally attractive to us, in one whose dignity overawes us, in one from whom we have some expecation of profit. With God, there is no respect of persons; we can plead no natural graces, no worth, no usefulness on our part when we throw ourselves on his mercy. We forgive idly, from an easy-going disposition which has little to do with any real goodness of heart; after all (we say to ourselves) it doesn’t matter so very much, there’s no great harm done. God cannot forgive like that; our offences against him clash with the order of creation. We forgive ignorantly; accepting excuses which we know to be false, yet with our pardon by appealing to our vanity. God cannot be deceived, cannot agree to accept falsehoods as truth. How little light, then, does our experience throw on what forgiveness really means!

Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, pp 41-42.

Here, Msgr Knox is only too accurate, and uncomfortably so. But I would say the key sentence there is, “our offenses against him clash with the order of creation.” That is a thing that the world, and too many Catholics, do not understand about sin. Sin disrupts the very cosmos. That is not to add to our anxiety or increase our guilt; but it is to give us a wider view of the spiritual life. 

But in truth, this is where today’s mystery begins to shine on us. In the 20th ch of St John’s Gospel, our Lord makes that appearance to the disciples in the upper room: 

“Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” When he had said this, he breathed upon them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, are retained.”

John 20, 22-23

This episode is the necessary preamble to Pentecost: the ability of the apostles and their successors to forgive sins. We heard of their miraculous preaching in today’s epistle. But we do well to ask what that preaching would have meant if it were not accompanied by the possibility of the forgiveness of sins. The negotiation of sin is hardly a trivial matter in human life; we have only to return to the book of Genesis to see how fundamental a question it is. And if Pentecost equips the Church with her power to teach and to save, that will mean especially her power to forgive. 

In the 2oth c., the Church’s magisterial documents become laden with talk of affirming human dignity. It is not incorrect to say this affirmation was the entire preoccupation of the Second Vatican Council, by Paul VI’s own admission. But whatever the Church does to respect and elevate human beings, she does this first and foremost by her power to remit and heal sin. Which is why the Church sings at the Alleluia today—“Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of this earth.”  

One final comment from Msgr Knox, to draw these strands together. “I do not know,” he writes, “whether any theologian has ever set himself to answer the question: Did our Lady say the Pater noster?”  (That is a question from someone who loves Our Lady; he keeps her in all his thoughts.) He answers his own question by saying that, indeed, of course she prayed the Our Father; how could we imagine her not doing so? And when she arrives at “Forgive us our trespasses,” she does so as a representative of her people; and of we her children. Our Pentecostal renewal, then, is presided over by the Queen of May.

Art Credit: Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959).

Homilies & Sermons