I love Pentecost! I have loved Pentecost for a long time, and the fact that my first Mass as a priest is happening on Pentecost is an incredibly joyous coincidence. There is just one problem. Now I have to preach heresy. I mean, I don’t want to preach heresy. I’m not trying to preach heresy. But today is about the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is one of the persons of the Trinity, and preaching about the mystery of the Trinity is haaaaaaaaard.
I can say this with absolute certainty and complete orthodoxy: there is one God, and he exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But the second I start explaining this, I am likely to fall into Modalism, or Arianism, or Partialism, or a whole host of heresies that I do not even know the name for. So you know what? I’m not going to try to explain the Trinity to you today. You can read St. Augustine, or St. Hilary, or St. Thomas, or any number of other saints who are way better theologians than me.
Instead, I want to talk about a different paradox of Christianity. You see, Christianity is a religion of paradoxes. It centers on statements that at first appear to be contradictory, but that we hold, in fact, to be true. God is one God in three persons. Paradox. Jesus is fully God and fully human. Paradox. We must die to be given new life. It is in giving that we receive. We find freedom in obedience. Paradox, paradox, paradox.
But there is one particular paradox that I think is especially important to discuss on this great feast of the Holy Spirit. It comes from St. Augustine, and I am going to say it in Latin first, because I just finished my 23rd year of school, and I want to look like I learned something. Augustine says that God is “interior intimo meo et superior summo meo” which is best translated as “more intimate than my inmost self and higher than my highest self.” In other words, God is completely within me, while also being completely beyond me.
Let’s start with that second part, because most of us get it. It is easy to imagine God being “completely other”, completely separated from humanity. The omnipotent creator of the universe, the one who knows all things, who controls all things. The one who is so different that he transcends categorization. This transcendence of God is extremely important, because a God who is not transcendent is not worthy of worship or honor or glory. There is no reason to come to church and offer sacrifice to a God who is flawed and weak.
But when we stop at the transcendence of God, when we only think of God as transcendent, we create problems for ourselves and others. A God who is only transcendent is a God who is aloof and disconnected, a God who would actually allow bad things to happen to good people, a God whose primary aim is to control our lives in order to make his power felt. This is a God who could and would, conceivably, abandon us.
But this is not our God.
Yes, our God is superior summo meo, but he is also, at the same time, interior intimo meo, more intimate than our inmost selves. See, our God does not just create the world, but he also holds it in existence. He cannot walk away from creation, because if he did, creation would cease to be. This means that God is continually creating us, continually sustaining us in existence. God is part of every fiber of our being, holding us together in a far more profound way than even the nuclear strong force.
In a supremely moving passage from the Confessions, St. Augustine reflects on this reality: “You were within, and I was abroad looking for you there. […] You were with me, but I was not with you.” Yes, God is the great and mighty creator of the universe, the foundation of all being, but we do not have to look up to a distant heaven to find him. He is with us always, whispering to us in the depth of our souls, guiding us, strengthening us, consoling us. He is the answer to our every desire and the one who reveals our inmost selves.
My friends, I would submit that it is this intimacy of God that is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that is dwelling in you, right now, and forever. It is the Holy Spirit that accompanies you in every moment, in the great joys and the great sorrows. When you look inside of yourselves, and catch a fleeting glimpse of the divine spark within you, you have glimpsed the Holy Spirit.
However, lest we begin to confuse the Holy Spirit with the Force from Star Wars, two important points: first, the Holy Spirit is a person, in relationship with another person. Like the most intimate of friends, he knows our thoughts and our struggles so perfectly and so clearly, that he knows exactly what we need, long before we realize we need it. And, like any good friendship, it is strengthened by conversation. I find that I speak to the Holy Spirit all the time, as a person, as a friend. Whenever I need advice, or strength, or comfort, or wisdom, or charity, I ask him. I tell him my thoughts and my fears. He is my constant companion and guide.
Second, the because the Holy Spirit is a person, has his own agenda, and that is to point us to Jesus Christ. Yes, God is God, so in a sense he is pointing to himself, but Jesus, the Son, is the God-man. Jesus’ incarnation is the foundation of our solidarity with God, Jesus’ crucifixion is the sign of the depth of the love of God, and Jesus’ resurrection is our hope for eternal life. It is only by knowing the Son that we can know the Father, and so the Spirit points to the Son. Jesus himself said this about the Spirit, “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name – he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit always, always, always points us to Jesus, and St. Paul tells us with good reason that “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
Finally, let’s be clear about one final thing. When we hear “intimacy” in English, we hear soft words. Maybe we think of the embrace of a mother or a spouse. Yes, I have felt the soft embrace of the Holy Spirit when I needed it, but it is not for nothing that the Holy Spirit was described as fire in today’s Gospel. The God who dwells in you is not placid or passive, he is an inferno raging within. We all sense his presence, his desire to break through to become an active part of our lives. But giving him space, letting him direct us, letting his fire burn within us is difficult and scary. So most of us try to ignore him, or numb his presence with distractions. Sin is an especially effective way to crowd the Holy Spirit out of our lives. But when we do the opposite, when we start to make room for the Holy Spirit in our souls, when we look inward and let the fire lick the kindling of our lives, his fire will spread, and there will be no stopping it.
My friends, I never wanted to be a priest. But I made friends with the Holy Spirit, I asked him for advice and strength and I began to rely on him. And then the Spirit drove me to Jesus, and Jesus showed me the way to the Father. And I kept walking along that way, with the Spirit as my guide, until he took me to a place that I did not want to go. But I had learned to trust the Holy Spirit, so I kept on walking. And walking. And walking. Until he led me here. I do not know where this path will lead me, but I trust the one who accompanies me as my intimate friend, and so I will follow him wherever he goes. May He guide you as he has guided me.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the Earth.