On Sunday June 4 we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost wasn’t and isn’t a once only event but rather a perennial one in which we can expect to receive a fresh and new outpouring of the Holy Spirit – a new Pentecost, if you will. Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, leads us in a reflection on this great feast of the Church – the doorway through which we enter into the fullness and joy of the Christian life.
The account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles begins with these words: ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place’ (Acts 2:1). These words tell us that Pentecost existed before… Pentecost. In other words there was already a Pentecost feast in Judaism, and it was during this feast that the Holy Spirit descended. Just as we cannot comprehend Easter without considering the Hebrew Passover, of which it was the fulfillment, so we cannot comprehend the Christian Pentecost without considering the Hebrew Pentecost.
In the Old Testament there existed two fundamental interpretations of the feast of Pentecost. At the beginning Pentecost was the festival of the seven weeks, the day of the first fruits when a sheaf of the new crop was offered to the Lord. Later on, however, the festivity was given a new meaning; it was the feast celebrating the giving of the law on Mount Sinai and of the covenant, the feast, that is, that commemorated the events described in Exodus 19‑20. St Luke deliberately describes the descent of the Holy Spirit so as to evoke the theophany of Sinai. Church Liturgy confirms this interpretation as it has inserted Exodus 19 among the readings for the Pentecost vigil.
What is the significance of the fact that the Holy Spirit descends on the Church precisely on the day Israel recalls the gift of the law and the covenant? The answer is clear. It was to show that he is the new law, the spiritual law, which seals the new and eternal covenant and who consecrates the royal and priestly people that forms the Church. What a wonderful revelation on the meaning of Pentecost and on the Holy Spirit himself! St Augustine exclaimed: ‘Who wouldn’t be struck by this coincidence and at the same time by this difference? Fifty days pass between the celebration of the Passover and the day on which Moses received the law written by God’s finger on tablets of stone; similarly, fifty days after the death and resurrection of the one who like a lamb was slaughtered, the finger of God, that is the Holy Spirit, filled the faithful who were gathered together’ (The Spirit and the Letter, 16, 28).
Suddenly the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel on the new covenant become clear: ‘This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts’ (Jer 31:33). He will no longer write it on tablets of stone but upon their hearts; it will no longer be an exterior law but an interior one. Ezekiel explains what this interior law consists of when he takes up again Jeremiah’s prophecy and completes it: ‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances’ (Ez 36:27). St Paul confirms this interpretation by saying: ‘The law of the Spirit which gives life in Jesus Christ has set me free from the law of sin and death’ (Rom 8:2). Here the ‘law of the Spirit’ means, in fact, ‘the law which is the Spirit.’
But how does this new law of the Spirit work in practice and in what way can it be called a ‘law’? It works through love! The new law is nothing other than what Jesus called the ‘new commandment.’ The Holy Spirit has written the new law on our hearts by pouring his love into them: ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5). This love is the love with which God loves us and through which, at the same time, he makes us love him and our neighbour. It is a new capacity to love.
Those who approach the Gospel in a human way find it absurd that love should be a ‘commandment’; they question what kind of love it could be if it is not freely given but commanded. The answer is that there are two ways in which man can be driven to do or not do something: either by force or by attraction, either by pushing or by pulling. In the first case the law forces him under the threat of punishment; in the second case love makes him act because he is attracted to something. In fact, each one of us is drawn to what we love without feeling obliged by external factors. Show a child some nuts, says again St Augustine, and he’ll stretch out his hand to seize them. He doesn’t need to be pushed; he is attracted by the object he desires. Show the Supreme Good to a soul thirsting for truth and it will reach out for it. Nobody pushes the soul, it is attracted by what it desires. Love is the ‘weight’ of a soul which draws it as if by a law of gravity to what it loves and where it finds its rightful rest (On the Gospel of John 26, 4‑5). Christian life is meant to be lived by attraction, not by force, out of love, not out of fear!
It is in this sense that the Holy Spirit is a ‘law,’ a ‘commandment’; it gives the faithful Christian an energy which makes him do all that God wants, spontaneously and without even thinking about it, because he has made God’s will his and he loves all that God loves. It’s like ‘being in love’ when everything is done joyfully and spontaneously and not out of fear or habit. The same change that falling in love creates in human life and in the relationship between two people is created by the coming of the Holy Spirit in the relationship between God and man. Pentecost is the door to the fullness and joy of Christian life.