June 9; Pentecost; Year C

pentecostBeing Born Again

Being “born again” seems to be within the exclusive domain of evangelical or Pentecostal Protestants. You may be surprised to know that being “born again” is not the sole monopoly of Protestants. But when Catholics use it, they typically mean something quite different. When a Catholic says that he has been “born again,” he refers to the transformation that God’s grace accomplished in him during baptism. Yes, if we have been baptised, we have been “born again.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described the Feast of the Pentecost as the feast of “the Baptism of the Church.” It is the day the Church is “born again.” The Holy Spirit, “who is the Lord and the Giver of Life ... has the power to sanctify, to remove divisions, to dissolve the confusion caused by sin. ... The Spirit distributes divine goodness and supports living beings that they may act in accordance with that goodness. As intelligible Light, it gives meaning to prayer, invigorates the mission of evangelisation, sets aflame the hearts of those who hear the happy message, and inspires Christian art and liturgical music. ... It creates faith within us at the moment of our Baptism and allows us to live as conscious and responsible children of God, in keeping with the image of the Only-begotten Son.”

One very helpful and beautiful way to ponder the Spirit’s transforming work of regeneration and rebirth is found in today’s Sequence, the theological depth of which grows on me year by year. In the Veni, Sancte Spiritus that we sang before the Gospel, we turned to the Holy Spirit under the merciful titles of “father of the poor,” “giver of gifts,” the “greatest consoler,” and invoked Him as the one who brings us to rest in God in the midst of work, refreshment when feverish, solace when we’re mourning. We begged Him to fill our hearts with His most blessed light. And then we asked Him to do six things for us, six different actions of bringing to new birth, six different ways of how each of us and the whole Church can be “born again.”

“Heal our wounds, our strength renew”
“On our dryness pour thy dew”
“Wash the stains of guilt away”
“Bend the stubborn heart and will”
“Melt the frozen, warm the chill”
“Guide the steps that go astray.”

Such eloquent beauty in these ancient words of prayer. Wounded, dry, stained, stubborn, frozen, straying: This is our natural condition. This is why we need to be reborn, remade, re-created. But then the Sequence affirms our belief that the Holy Spirit wants to work in us — to heal, to drench, to wash, to bend, to melt and to guide — and then wants to send and accompany us outward, so that through us, He may carry out His mission of sanctification in the world. In baptism, the Spirit performs a new Pentecost, and we are reborn, where once wounded, we now bring healing; where once dry, we now can quench the thirst of others; where once stained, we now purify and wash; where once stubborn, we now hope to bend others to the will of God; where once frozen, we now melt the hearts of others and warm their chill; where once lost, we now offer guidance leading others to Christ. And all of this is only possible with the help of the Holy Spirit, as all our works will come to naught in His absence. Without the Holy Spirit, we are lost.

O the wonder of the work of the Spirit. As St Basil the Great tells us “through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the status of adopted sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory – in a word, our being brought into a state of all fullness of blessing, both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us.”

And the Holy Spirit continues to work today in our Church and that work takes place most of all at every Mass. At every mass, the Holy Spirit comes to fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in us the fire of His love. The Eucharist, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “is a ‘perpetual Pentecost’ since every time we celebrate Mass, we receive the Holy Spirit who unites us more deeply with Christ and transforms us into Him.” During the epiclesis, when the priest calls down the Holy Spirit — “Veni, Sanctificator!” — He comes and carries out that work of sanctification, transforming mere bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Spirit of the Lord not only brings new birth to the Church, He also seeks to heal and renew the Church. And that is why we constantly need a new Pentecost. Whereas God brings harmony and peace to everything everywhere, sin causes chaos, conflict and division to everything everywhere — in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our workplace, and in our church. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit begins to reverse all this. But, our fallen human nature is still with us, even in the post-Pentecost Church. In the early Church as attested to in the New Testament, we see Christians divided by division, prejudice, rivalry, hostility, and heresy. And as church history unfolds, the Church is afflicted by ongoing divisions and schisms. The ultimate cause of these divisions is not just doctrinal disagreements — any more than the ultimate cause of the breakdown of a marriage that ends in divorce, are irreconcilable differences that are nobody’s fault. Division and conflict are the result of sin, of pride, of lack of love or disordered love separating us from God, the source of harmony and unity. We choose to follow our own human spirit or the spirit of the world, rather than listen and heed the promptings of the Spirit of God. That is why more than ever, our parish, in fact all parishes, require a new Pentecost.

And so we must continue to be “born again.” We had experienced new birth at our baptism and we must continue to experience a regeneration at every Eucharist and whenever we celebrate the sacrament of Penance. The Sacraments, the work of the Holy Spirit, continue to make present the reality of Pentecost in our lives. We must be born again and we cannot allow anything to thwart our continual rebirth into Christ. Christianity is a life of beginnings, of continual renewal. Each Christian participates in his own cycle of failure and repentance, insecurity and confidence, clarity and error, passions that threaten to swamp reason, and so many other apparent opposites which do battle in our souls for the upper hand. We must constantly allow the Spirit to heal, drench, wash, bend, melt and guide us. The moment we cease to do so, not only will inertia and atrophy set in, but our spiritual death is assured.

Perhaps, we doubt whether we or others in our parish are capable of change or capable of experiencing a new Pentecost. Doubt no longer. Today, we are all given a chance to be “born again.” As St. John Chrysostom once preached on Pentecost: "Today for us, earth is made heaven, not with stars descending to the earth, but with apostles ascending to heaven, because a copious grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out, and the orb of the earth has been turned into heaven, not changing nature, but fixing the will. The Holy Spirit found a publican and turned him into an evangelist; he found a persecutor, and rendered him an apostle; he found a thief, and he guided him into Paradise; He found a prostitute and made her chaste like a virgin; he found wise men and turned them into evangelists; he chased out evil and led in goodness; he ended slavery, and he introduced liberty; he pardoned debt and offered the grace of God.” If the Holy Spirit can do all this, then it is not impossible for Him to change you or renew this parish.