The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
Reflection & Dialogue: The Holy Spirit, union with the Father, the forgiveness of sins, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession)
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Acts 2:1-11). They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak. This reading is about events that took place on the day of Pentecost, commonly known today as Whitsunday (that is White Sunday, from the white clothes once worn by newly baptized on this day). Pentecost, of the Acts of the Apostles written in Greek, is a Greek word. pentecoste, meaning “the fiftieth”, the fiftieth day after Easter. It was one of the three Jewish festivals listed in the Bible to be celebrated with special solemnity. The first was Passover (Easter) itself. It was originally a harvest festival, but later, and very probably by New Testament times, it commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on the Mountain (Sinai, Horeb), just as Passover commemorated the exodus from Egypt.
The coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and the Church, like the ascension of Christ to the right hand of the Father, is a religious reality, a mystery that may be expressed as such or recounted as something experienced by the senses. As we see from today’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as having given the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles (the Eleven) on Easter day itself. Luke in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is recounting the visible beginning of the Church and the Christian mission to the Jewish people and the world.
There are two scenes in today’s reading. The first speaks of the apostles, together with women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers, in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Holy Spirit, but in fear. The coming of the Spirit is accompanied by traditional signs of divine intervention, such as a mighty wind. The tongues of fire represent the power of speech for the new mission. The Spirit would bring internal faith conviction of what Jesus stood for and his enthronement at God’s right hand. Speaking in tongues (glossalalia) was a phenomenon of the early Church.
The second scene takes us outside the upper room, and represents the earliest preaching of the Gospel and the foundation of the Church. Pious Jews from all over the Roman Empire would have been on pilgrimage in Jerusalem for the festival. Luke lists them anti-clockwise: from the East (present-day Iran and Iraq), the north (present-day Turkey), the west, Egypt and the northern African coast, as well as Rome. Luke may have been thinking of this Pentecost as the reversal of the Tower of Babel incident with the confusion of tongues and the scattering of the nations of the world. With the Pentecost events the Church’s mission to the world had begun.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 103). Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth.
Second Reading (1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13). In the same Spirit we were all baptised. In its context in the epistle, this passage is the beginning of a discussion in three chapters (chapters 12-14) in which Paul explains to the Corinthians the place of the gifts bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit. Almost all of the members of the community would have come from a pagan background, and many of them would have experienced some form of pagan religious ritual, which was affecting their practice of Christianity. The danger was that some of the gifts (such as speaking in tongues) were showier than others, and were in danger of being more appreciated. Paul’s guiding principle throughout is that the gifts come from the Holy Spirit and are to build up the community in faith. The very profession of faith, made by the expression “Jesus is Lord”, can be made only by a gift of the Holy Spirit. All are baptised in the same spirit, Jew and Greek (pagan), slaves and free persons, and thus all are equal before the Lord, and should be so regarded within the community. The Corinthian community was richly endowed with gifts of different kinds. They had different gifts of serving the community, but, Paul reminds them, all these various endowments were given by God for a good purpose, which was not for the glorification of the individual but the good of the believing community. He illustrates his point by the example of the human body, a method of illustration widely used in the Greco-Roman world. All the members of the body, though many, make one body. Thus it is with Christ and the Church.
Gospel(John 20:19-23). As the Father sent me, so I am sending you; receive the Holy Spirit. The day in question in this reading is Easter Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead. John’s gospel has just recounted before this passage how the risen Lord first appeared to Mary Magdalene. Jesus now appears to his disciples, who are in a room with the doors locked, out of fear of their enemies. Coming through closed doors Jesus shows he has a risen body, but the one in which he was crucified, with the wounds of the cross. This account of the appearance is also in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:36-49). In Luke’s account, Jesus draws attention to the wounds in his hands and his feet, to indicate the continuity between him in his now glorious state and his earthly life, and death on the cross. In today’s reading, Jesus showed his apostles his hands and his side, with the wound made by one of the soldiers. Jesus is about to send them the Holy Spirit. This gift of the Spirit had already been signalled in John’s Gospel at the death of Jesus (John19:28-30). At the moment of death, Jesus, knowing that everything had been completed, said: “It is fulfilled” – that is the Father’s plan of salvation had been brought to completion. The text goes on to say that bowing his head Jesus handed over the Spirit, the spirit promised to his Church at his own glorification at death, as earlier promised by himself (John7:39; 16:5-7). The gift of the Spirit would be symbolized by the wound in Jesus’ side, when blood and water came out (John 19:34). The risen and glorified Jesus now appears to his disciples on the evening of that first Easter Sunday. The promised gift of the Holy Spirit is now about to become a reality. This is a solemn moment, with Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples as those chosen by him to continue his work on earth. There is to be continuity between his mission from the Father and their mission as sent by Jesus himself. Jesus breathed on them, and they are, as it were, baptized in the Holy Spirit who will guarantee the continuation of Jesus’ mission. Jesus died so that sins might be forgiven. As he said in the words of the Eucharistic consecration: his blood was shed for the remission of sins. Now, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, his disciples and the Church will continue his saving work in forgiving sin.
Reflection & Dialogue: The Holy Spirit, union with the Father, the forgiveness of sins, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession).
Today’s Gospel reading presents a good opportunity to reflect on the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church, his presence in the Church, and the significance of this for the mystery of the union of believers with Jesus and the life of the Trinity, through the sacrament if reconciliation as required. One may be somewhat surprised with the rather abrupt nature of Jesus’ message to his disciples on this first meeting with them after his resurrection. He says twice: Peace be with you”, and then immediately: “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you. Receive the Holy Spirit”. Having already been aware of Jesus’ teaching on the matter, as given in John’s Gospel, the disciples would have understood all that these opening words implied. Jesus and the Father were one. He came to reveal the Father; to bring the life of the Father to his followers, with Jesus in his followers as he is in the Father, so that they may all be one in Jesus and in the Father. The disciples are now sent to be messengers and bearers of this mystery to the world. Jesus breathed on them (as if to begun a new creation) and bid them receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has many functions, as we have seen in today’s readings. The one here stressed is that of forgiving sins. The great barrier to the union with Jesus and the Father, with the Holy Trinity, is sin. Christ died so that sins might be forgiven, and has conferred on his disciples, and their followers in the Church, the power of forgiving sin. The early Church, and later, had to live with the reality of sin and the implication of these words of Jesus. What sins were intended, and how often could forgiveness be given? The sins early intended were only very grave ones: apostasy from the faith, murder, adultery, for instance. Confession of sins seems to have been rather public, and this was followed by a lengthy period of penance (in an “order of penitents”) before reconciliation with the Church. The practice was not successful. A new, and the present modern, practice and rite was introduced by Irish monks. As the new Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1447) puts it: “To this ‘order of penitents’ (which concerned only certain grave sins), one was only rarely admitted and in certain regions only once in a lifetime. During the seventh century Irish missionaries, inspired by the Eastern monastic tradition, took to continental Europe the ‘private’ practice of penance, which does not require public and prolonged completion of penitential works before reconciliation with the Church. From this time on, the sacrament has been performed in secret between penitent and priest. This new practice envisioned the possibility of repetition and so opened the way to a regular frequenting of this sacrament. It allowed the forgiveness of grave sins and venial sins to be integrated into one sacramental celebration. In its main lines this is the form of penance that the Church has practised down to our own day”.
This takes us to a call for a renewal of the sacrament of reconciliation in our day, and in our own land. Confession and communion were rare until the liturgical reform of Pius X (1905) and again at the Second Vatican Council. Confession became very frequent in Ireland – we would call it “confession of devotion”, as Ireland was a very devotional country. Then it almost vanished, not necessarily through a lack or abandonment of faith. One can now call for a reassessment of the situation. From the point of view of Church law only those conscious of mortal (grave) sin are bound by Church law to go to confession once a year, although confession of venial sins is encouraged. But leaving Church law aside, confession of sins and the frequenting of the sacrament of reconciliation are to be encouraged. The practice keeps one aware of sin, and of the need to keep in union with the mystery of the Church, of Christ and the Father. The Holy Spirit was given by Christ for the forgiveness of sin, and to keep believers aware of the call of Jesus to remain united in his love.