There is so much that can be said about this feast day and what it represents in our faith. In fact, too much. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity, and therefore God, is altogether mysterious. We do our best to understand the Spirit, using four particular symbols that come from the Scriptures:
As Jesus came up from the waters of baptism, behold, the heavens were opened, and the Spirit of God descended upon him like a dove (Mt 3:16).
But also, like water. Jesus said, “Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).
And then we’re told, “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).
And as we hear today, the Holy Spirit is likened to a blazing fire.
When you think about water, wind, a dove and fire: it can either make us feel comfort, or it can make us unsettled. And just as the Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Paraclete or Advocate—the latter term coming from ad vocatus, meaning one who accompanies—we realize that our Advocate is sometimes our defender and other times our prosecutor—the Spirit of truth, guiding us to all truth (Jn 16:13). Also, he is the one, whom Jesus said would remain with us until his return, as his continued and abiding presence.
But another way we understand the Holy Spirit is as one who unifies us. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles speaks of how people of different languages and nations were drawn together into the one Spirit, in order to share in Jesus’ mission. And that same Spirit was given to us, varied as we are, to draw out from us, our God-given gifts, all for the sake of this same Mission.
It just so happens that this year, this solemnity falls on June 9th, the feast day for St. Ephrem, sometimes called the Harp of the Holy Spirit, known for his lyrical and poetic writings, written for the purpose of teaching the faith.
He was born c. 306 in southeastern Turkey (Nisibis), near the Syrian border. He inherited the Christian faith from his mother. As a young man he began to live like a monk: a strict prayer life, virtually no possessions, and in community with like-minded individuals. Eventually he was ordained a deacon.
Beginning in 338, Nisibis came under attack from Persian forces. Over the course of two decades, King Shapur II pounded away at the city walls, until at last, the people surrendered and were forcibly expelled. Many people, including Ephrem, fled to another city, Edessa, roughly 140 miles west. By this time, Deacon Ephrem was in his late 50s. After 10 years of living in Edessa, Ephrem, in caring for the sick and dying during a plague, contracted the illness. He died on this date in 373.
In his writings—of which, more than 400 poems still exist—he drew upon influences of Rabbinic Judaism, Greek science and philosophy, and Mesopotamian tradition. They are beautiful, powerful, and deeply theological.
Today’s solemnity calls us to bear in mind the unbridled power of the fiery Spirit of God, the sanctifying element that spiritually animates us as individuals according to our distinct gifts. In light of that, we consider the words of the deacon, St. Ephrem, the Harp of the Holy Spirit, in regards to the bread and wine, which before us in a moment will be enlivened and changed by the descending Holy Spirit, to become our Eucharist, the means by which we are spiritually united and made sharers in God’s Divine Life:
“In your bread hides the Spirit who cannot be consumed; in your wine is the fire that cannot be swallowed. The Spirit in your bread, fire in your wine: behold a wonder heard from our lips.
The seraph could not bring himself to touch the glowing coal with his fingers, it was Isaiah’s mouth alone that it touched; neither did the fingers grasp it nor the mouth swallow it; but the Lord has granted us to do both these things.
The fire came down with anger to destroy sinners, but the fire of grace descends on the bread and settles in it. Instead of the fire that destroyed man, we have consumed the fire in the bread and have been invigorated.”
In this sacred food, may we receive the Pentecost fire. May it burn our sins away, leaving behind only what is of God….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.