“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When Jesus had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” – Luke 1:8-9
“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” – Luke 2:1-4
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to the apostles and early disciples to give them the power they would need to spread the Gospel throughout the world. He called each of them to be martyrs (the Greek word martus is what we translate as witness in English bibles). He knew that they would need the Holy Spirit to give them strength and to validate their testimony through signs and wonders. Immediately after receiving the Holy Spirit those first believers—note that there were “about 120” gathered not just the twelve—began preaching the Gospel. They preached “in season and out of season” whether they were accepted, rejected or persecuted. The faith spread. The Church grew and advanced. The world was fundamentally transformed.
As we celebrate Pentecost 2015 many people see Christianity on the ropes, a faith in decline in the midst of an ever more secular world. The media world (both traditional and social media) have been inundated with articles, blogs, editorials, and analysis of the findings of the Pew Research Center’s survey results showing marked declines in Christian denominations and the rise of the “Nones”, those with no religious affiliation. The Twittersphere and blogospheres have erupted in condemnation over the revelation that reality TV star and outspoken Christian Josh Dugger molested underage girls when he was 14 years old. Many have used this tragic situation as what they perceive as another example of the hypocrisy of Christianity. Finally, just days before the feast of Pentecost, Ireland, perhaps the most Catholic nation of Europe became the first nation to legalize same sex marriage through popular vote, and they did so by a landslide; while the US awaits the Supreme Court’s ruling on the same issue.
It’s not a stretch to think that what the Church really needs right now is a new Pentecost. In fact many are hoping and praying for just that. If only God would pour out his Spirit upon the Church we could be strengthened to withstand the attacks of sin, the world, and the devil.
Well in truth, there is good news, bad news, and great news about that whole new Pentecost idea.
The good news is that God never stopped pouring out his Spirit and we still participate in Pentecost. It’s called the sacrament of confirmation. “It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.” (CCC #1302) That’s right, confirmation imparts the same special outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the apostles got on the first Pentecost. The same Spirit, the same anointing, the same power and gifts given to the apostles and disciples gathered in the upper room is given at each and every confirmation. You may not have seen the tongues of fire or heard the rushing wind at your confirmation, but the same Holy Spirit was imparted to you nonetheless.
This is the meaning of the Church's affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: "by the very fact of the action's being performed"), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God." From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. – CCC #1128
If the good news is that God is pouring out his Spirit through the sacrament of confirmation, the bad news can be found in the last sentence of the above quote from the Catechism. The fruit of any sacrament, that is the effect it has upon our daily lives, is dependent upon how we receive and utilize those graces. Let’s be honest, the quality of our reception of the sacraments, not just confirmation, is pretty weak. Maybe we don’t witness greater transformation within our own parishes because the communion lines are so much longer than the lines for the confessional. In terms of confirmation much of the standard parish preparation does not stress the purpose of the sacrament: to be Christ’s martyr witnesses. Confirmation bids us to come and die to bear witness to the joy of the Gospel. We must die if we are to be witnesses. We must die to our pride, our sins, our desires, our own self-love, and in many places in the world today we may even have to truly lay down our earthly lives for our faith. The Church as a whole has not done a very good job at communicating the purpose and power of the sacrament to those preparing to receive it, and as a result the typical experience of confirmation has little impact on the daily lives of those who receive the sacrament.
If the good news is that God is pouring out his Spirit upon us through the sacrament of confirmation, but the bad news is we do such a poor job preparing people to receive it in a way that can make a difference, then what’s the great news? Since confirmation is an abiding sacrament, it is given once and marks the soul with an indelible seal, we can tap into that well of sacramental grace anytime. So long as you are in a state of grace (that is, free from mortal sin through the sacrament of reconciliation) then you can access the power and presence of the same Holy Spirit that was given to the apostles and Pentecost and to you at confirmation. As long as we draw breath it is never too late for God to work in and through us. Even if we did not know it when we were confirmed a personal Pentecost is there for us to go forth and impact the world for Christ.
How do we do that? In a sense it is simple, we must pray, humble ourselves and repent (in the Greek, metanoia, to change your thinking). Jesus told us to ask, seek and knock in the sermon on the mount, he promised if we kept asking, seeking and knocking that we would be given good gifts from our Father in heaven. If we are unsatisfied with the presence of the Spirit in our lives, or better yet, if we believe God wants to be more present in our lives, then we must persevere in prayer. That type of prayer requires humility on our part. We must come to the realization that we cannot carry on without the power of the Spirit in our lives. We must be willing to look like fools (or even bigots) to the world. This is where repentance comes into play. If we really want to see the power and presence of Pentecost in our lives we have to get out of our normal way of thinking. Whether we recognize it or not we typically do not think and therefore do not act in a way that expects God to act in our daily lives. Too often we rely on our own strength or our own way of thinking. We can be too easily conformed to the way the world thinks about things.
When we begin to live in the grace of our confirmation it impacts our lives. The Holy Spirit changes our prayer life, our sacramental life, and even how we live our daily life. We become filled with faith and gain a deeper appreciation for the authority of the Church. The power of the Spirit gives us spiritual eyes to see and understand the spirit of the age in which we live. This is what Paul was talking about when he urged Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) When we are open to the work of the Spirit we see the expression of his many gifts in our lives in order to build up the Church (see 1 Cor. 12). It will only be when Catholics learn to take advantage of the grace of their confirmation to be witnesses in the world that we will see the real impact the Gospel can have on the world like it did in the days following the first Pentecost.