Homily of Pope Benedict XVI for the Solemnity of Pentecost 2009
Apart from being a magnificent example of mystagogical preaching, the Holy Father’s Pentecost homily reveals an exquisite sensitivity to role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in preparing the Church for the descent of the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict XVI continues to offer us a wealth of Mariological insights masterfully harmonized with the liturgical cycle of feasts and mysteries. The subtitles and italics are my own.
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
The One Center of the Liturgy and of the Christian Life
Every time that we celebrate the Eucharist we experience in faith the mystery that is accomplished on the altar, that is, we participate in the supreme act of love that Christ realized with his death and resurrection. The one center of the liturgy and of Christian life — the paschal mystery — then assumes specific “forms,” with different meanings and particular gifts of grace, in the different solemnities and feasts.
The Holy Spirit, the True Fire
Among all the solemnities, Pentecost is distinguished by its importance, because in it that which Jesus himself proclaimed as being the purpose of his whole earthly mission is accomplished. In fact, while he was going up to Jerusalem, he declared to his disciples: “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish for it to be kindled!” (Luke 12:49). These words find their most obvious realization 50 days after the resurrection, in Pentecost, the ancient Jewish feast that, in the Church, has become the feast of the Holy Spirit par excellence: “There appeared to them parted tongues as of fire … and all were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:3-4). The Holy Spirit, the true fire, was brought to earth by Christ. He did not steal it from the gods — as Prometheus did according to the Greek myth — but he became the mediator of the “gift of God,” obtaining it for us with the greatest act of love in history: his death on the cross.
Receive the Holy Spirit
God wants to continue to give this “fire” to every human generation, and naturally he is free to do this how and when he wants. He is spirit, and the spirit “blows where he wills” (cf. John 3:8). However, there is an “ordinary way” that God himself has chosen for “casting fire upon the earth”: Jesus is this way, the incarnate only begotten Son of God, dead and risen. For his part, Jesus constituted the Church as his mystical body, so that it prolongs his mission in history. “Receive the Holy Spirit” — the Lord says to the Apostles on the evening of his resurrection, accompanying those words with an expressive gesture: he “breathed” upon them (cf. John 20:22). In this way he showed them that he was transmitting his Spirit to them, the Spirit of the Father and the Son.
The Grace of the Cenacle: Prayer and Concord
Now, dear brothers and sisters, in today’s solemnity Scripture tells us how the community must be, how we must be to receive the Holy Spirit. In his account of Pentecost the sacred author says that the disciples “were together in the same place.” This “place” is the Cenacle, the “upper room,” where Jesus held the Last Supper with his disciples, where he appeared to them after his resurrection; that room that had become the “seat,” so to speak, of the nascent Church (cf. Acts 1:13). Nevertheless, the intention in the Acts of the Apostles is more to indicate the interior attitude of the disciples than to insist on a physical place: “They all persevered in concord and prayer” (Acts 1:14). So, the concord of the disciples is the condition for the coming of the Holy Spirit; and prayer is the presupposition of concord.
A Church Less Preoccupied With Activities and More Dedicated to Prayer
This is also true for the Church today, dear brothers and sisters. It is true for us who are gathered together here. If we do not want Pentecost to be reduced to a mere ritual or to a suggestive commemoration, but that it be a real event of salvation, through a humble and silent listening to God’s Word we must predispose ourselves to God’s gift in religious openness. So that Pentecost renew itself in our time, perhaps there is need — without taking anything away from God’s freedom [to do as he pleases] — for the Church to be less “preoccupied” with activities and more dedicated to prayer.
Mary Most Holy, the Mother of the Church and Bride of the Holy Spirit
Mary Most Holy, the Mother of the Church and Bride of the Holy Spirit, teaches us this. This year Pentecost occurs on the last day of May, when the Feast of the Visitation is customarily celebrated. This event was also a little “Pentecost,” bringing forth joy and praise from the hearts of Elizabeth and Mary — the one barren and the other a virgin — who both became mothers by an extraordinary divine intervention (cf. Luke 1:41-45).
The Hayden Harmoniemesse
The music and singing that is accompanying our liturgy, also help us to united in prayer, and in this regard I express a lively recognition of the choir of the Cologne cathedral and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra. Joseph Haydn’s “Harmoniemesse,” the last of the Masses composed by this great musician, and a sublime symphony for the glory of God, was chosen for today’s Mass. The Haydn Mass was a fitting choice given that it is the bicentennial of the composer’s death. I address a cordial greeting to all those who have come for this.
The Air We Breathe
To indicate the Holy Spirit, the account in the Acts of the Apostles uses two great images, the image of the tempest and the image of fire. Clearly, St. Luke had in mind the theophany of Sinai, recounted in Exodus (19:16-19) and Deuteronomy (4:10-12:36). In the ancient world the tempest was seen as a sign of divine power, in whose presence man felt subjugated and terrified. But I would like to highlight another aspect: the tempest is described as a “strong driving wind,” and this brings to mind the air that distinguishes our planet from others and permits us to live on it. What air is for biological life, the Holy Spirit is for the spiritual life; and as there is air pollution, that poisons the environment and living things, there is also pollution of the heart and the spirit, that mortifies and poisons spiritual existence. In the same way that we should not be complacent about the poisons in the air — and for this reason ecological efforts are a priority today — we should also not be complacent about that which corrupts the spirit. But instead it seems that our minds and hearts are menaced by many pollutants that circulate in society today — the images, for example, that make pleasure a spectacle, violence that degrades men and women — and people seem to habituate themselves to this without any problem. It is said that this is freedom but it is just a failure to recognize all that which pollutes, poisons the soul, above all of the new generations, and ends up limiting freedom itself. The metaphor of the strong driving wind of Pentecost makes one think of how precious it is to breathe clean air, be it physical air without lungs, or spiritual air — the healthy air of the spirit that is love — with our heart.
Fire From Heaven
Fire is the other image of the Holy Spirit that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. I compared Jesus with the mythological figure of Prometheus at the beginning of the homily. The figure of Prometheus suggests a characteristic aspect of modern man. Taking control of the energies of the cosmos — “fire” — today human beings seem to claim themselves as gods and want to transform the world excluding, putting aside or simply rejecting the Creator of the universe. Man no longer wants to be the image of God but the image of himself; he declares himself autonomous, free, adult. Obviously that reveals an inauthentic relationship with God, the consequence of a false image that has been constructed of him, like the prodigal son in the Gospel parable who thought that he could find himself by distancing himself from the house of his father. In the hands of man in this condition, “fire” and its enormous possibilities become dangerous: they can destroy life and humanity itself, as history unfortunately shows. The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which atomic energy, used as a weapon, ended up bringing death in unheard of proportions, remain a perennial warning.
With Mary in the Cenacle
We could of course find many examples, less grave and yet just as symptomatic, in the reality of everyday life. Sacred Scripture reveals that the energy that has the ability to move the world is not an anonymous and blind power, but the action of the “spirit of God that broods over the waters” (Genesis 1:2) at the beginning of creation. And Jesus Christ “cast upon the earth” not a native power that was already present but the Holy Spirit, that is, the love of God, who “renews the face of the earth,” purifying it of evil and liberating it from the dominion of death (cf. Psalm 103 : 29-30). This pure “fire,” essential and personal, the fire of love, descended upon the Apostles, gathered together with Mary in prayer in the Cenacle, to make the Church the extension of Christ’s work of renewal.
The Holy Spirit Overcomes Fear
Finally, a last thought also taken from the Acts of the Apostles: the Holy Spirit overcomes fear. We know that the disciples fled to the Cenacle after the Master’s arrest and remained there out of fear of suffering the same fate. After Jesus’ resurrection this fear did not suddenly disappear. But when the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost, those men went out without fear and began to proclaim the good news of Christ crucified and risen. They had no fear, because they felt that they were in stronger hands.
His Infinite Love Will Not Abandon Us
Yes, dear brothers and sisters, where the Spirit of God enters, he chases out fear; he makes us know and feel that we are in the hands of an Omnipotence of love: whatever happens, his infinite love will not abandon us. The witness of the martyrs, the courage of the confessors, the intrepid élan of missionaries, the frankness of preachers, the example of all the saints — some who were even adolescents and children — demonstrate this. It is also demonstrated by the very existence of the Church, which, despite the limits and faults of men, continues to sail across the ocean of history, driven by the breath of God and animated by his purifying fire. With this faith and this joyous hope we repeat today, through Mary’s intercession: “Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth!”
[Zenit Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]