Ascension Thursday will be this week and Pentecost two weeks from today. So the Church is turning our attention toward the events they commemorate.
In the gospel — John 14:23-29 — Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. What he says about going away, going to the Father, foretells the Ascension. What he says about the Holy Spirit being sent by the Father foretells the event of Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit will do two things for the disciples: he will teach them everything, and he will remind them of everything Jesus told them. This assures us that their proclamation of the gospel was true. But what does it mean for us in our lives today?
In the first place, we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. So we can expect the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This comes principally in the promptings that come to mind that suggest good things we can do at a given moment or that tell us we shouldn’t do something we are thinking about. We need to try to follow these promptings. It’s easy to dismiss the Holy Spirit’s suggestion, “You should do this,” and say, “not right now.” “Why not spend a few minutes in prayer?” “Later. Right now I’m going to have lunch.” or “That person seems to be struggling with those packages. Lend a hand.” “They’ll be okay.” It’s easy to dismiss all sorts of impulses to do something worthwhile. Likewise with impulses to refrain from something bad. “Slow down.” “But I don’t have much time.” You don’t need that second piece of pie.” “But it tastes so good.” “You shouldn’t be looking at that stuff.” “Just one more video.”
But our first reading — Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 — shows that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just speak to us as individuals. Jesus’ promise is one for the whole Church. That’s why we call Pentecost “the birthday of the Church.” The question about whether all Christians needed to follow the Jewish law wasn’t about the details of one person’s life: it involved the whole Church. So a decision had to be made for the whole Church. The apostles were in Jerusalem, so it fell to them to give the answer, and the Holy Spirit was there to teach them. The answer they sent to Antioch noted that the Holy Spirit had given them the answer that circumcision wasn’t necessary: the details of Jewish law don’t apply. As one commentator has pointed out, the decision was accepted by all concerned. The one side didn’t say, “You’re wrong. Circumcision is still necessary,” and the other side didn’t say, “You’re wrong to give those minimum standards.”
The Holy Spirit still guides the successors of the Apostles, the Pope and the bishops. When they clearly teach something, we should be like the early Christians. There can be legitimate questions about how definitive a specific teaching is, but our expectation, like that of the Early Christians, should be to hear the Holy Spirit teaching us through the Pope and the bishops.
In the responsorial psalm — Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8 with refrain from v. 4 — we reflect on the call of all nations to join the worship of God by his people. This inclusion of the Gentiles is what occasioned the events of the first reading, and it’s success was greatly facilitated by them. If Gentiles had to follow all Jewish dietary and ritual law, the acceptance of the gospel might have been much less widespread.
The Church is that holy city, the Jerusalem whose foundation is the twelve apostles that we hear of in the second reading — Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23. Although we think of Revelation as telling us of the end times, the letters to the churches at the beginning of the book were about the time it was written, the conflicts it describes symbolically were happening to the early Christians, the heavenly realities it tells of are ongoing. If the new Jerusalem is not physically visible yet, it is still a reality in which we participate spiritually as members of the Communion of Saints.
So the question for us is how can we be more alert to the Holy Spirit when he speaks directly to us about what to do, and how can we be more alert to what the Holy Spirit says to the whole Church? Hint: Catholic radio and TV and Catholic newspapers will give us much more and clearer information about what the Church is saying than we can get anywhere else other than the Vatican website.
If that’s the question, there is also the great promise behind it: Jesus has promised us his peace, and he has promised us the Holy Spirit. At Mass we claim the gift of peace when we offer the sign of peace, and we claim the gift of the Holy Spirit when the priest asks the Father to send him to consecrate our gifts and again when he asks him to send the Holy Spirit to bring unity to the whole Church through our receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ.