Sunday, June 04, 2017

The First Outpouring of the Holy Spirit: for Forgiveness

(Pentecost 2017 (A): This homily was given on June 4, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2: 1-11; John 20: 19-23.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Pentecost 2017]

I’m sure that many of you remember the great comedian, Red Skelton.  He performed back in the days when most comics didn’t feel the need to use 4-letter words in their comedy routines.

Ah, the good old days.

I read an interesting story about Red this past week.  It seems that, one day back in 1951, he was on a plane that was headed to Europe, where he was scheduled to perform in a show.  But on the way, as the plane was flying over the Swiss Alps, three of its engines failed and the plane began to go down.  The situation looked rather bleak (to put it mildly!), and many of the passengers quite naturally began to pray.  As for Red Skelton, he responded to the situation by doing what he did best: he went into a comedy routine—to try to distract the passengers from the impending disaster.  He was like the orchestra on the Titanic that played music as the ship slowly sank into the North Atlantic.

Well, thankfully, at the last moment, the pilot spotted a large field between two of the mountains there in the Alps, and he was able to land the plane safely in that field.
When the ordeal was finally over, Red stood up and—in typical Red Skelton style—said, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, you may return to all the evil habits you gave up twenty minutes ago.”
Which brings us to this morning’s gospel reading from John, chapter 20.  Today, as I mentioned at the beginning of Mass, we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, which was the event we heard about in our first reading from Acts, chapter 2.  This was the moment when the promise Jesus had made to his Apostles at the Last Supper was completely fulfilled.  This was the moment of the first Confirmation, when the Holy Spirit descended on these men and gave them power—new power: the power to live the truth of the Gospel, and speak the truth of the Gospel, and defend the truth of the Gospel.  This was the moment when they received gifts—the spiritual gifts they would need to carry out the mission Jesus had given them to convert the world: first and foremost, the gifts of faith, hope and charity; but also the seven gifts mentioned in Isaiah 11 (wisdom, understanding, knowledge, etc.); as well as the charismatic gifts like tongues, prophecy and healing.
The Spirit empowered them through this spectacular event, and they were transformed.  Suddenly they were no longer afraid of their own shadows.  Suddenly they were not intimidated by the godless culture they were living in.  Instead, they made the decision to use the gifts the Spirit gave to them that day, and change their culture in a positive way from within—which is exactly what we’re supposed to do in our culture today with the anointing we receive at our Confirmation. 
But it’s not magic!  Notice, I said that the Apostles made the decision to use the gifts of the Spirit to work for positive change.  The fact is, you can receive the gifts of the Spirit at Confirmation (as many of our young people do today) and do absolutely nothing positive with those graces.  In that case, you most certainly will be intimidated by the culture we’re currently living in, and eventually overpowered by it.  This, unfortunately, happens more often than not these days.  If you need some proof, just get hold of some statistics on how many confirmed Catholic young people support things like abortion and transgenderism and so-called gay marriage.
At this point, I’ll bet it’s way over 50%.
But as important as it is to receive—and use—the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives, there is something even more basic that the Spirit brings to us, which is why Jesus didn’t wait until Pentecost to begin pouring out the Spirit on his first priests.  As we heard in today’s gospel, Jesus first sent the Spirit to his Apostles way back on Easter Sunday (a full fifty days before Pentecost).
So that they could forgive sins in his name!
The Spirit was given first so that sins could be forgiven—which should make perfect sense to us because, if a person is steeped in sin, any spiritual gifts he may have won’t matter. 

They won’t matter at all.
Forgiveness is primary—and necessary.  This is something, by the way, that Red Skelton definitely understood.  It’s why he said what he said on that plane back in 1951.  Red knew that when the passengers on that aircraft thought they were about to die, most of them were not especially interested in how much wisdom and knowledge they possessed, or whether they could pray in tongues or not.  What they were most concerned with at that decisive (and scary) moment was where they stood before God!  And it was that concern which led them to want to give up what Red called their “evil habits”—that is to say, the sins they had committed but had not yet repented of.
Red knew.
“[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”
This is where priests get the power to forgive sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
And so, if you want to determine how active the Holy Spirit is in your life at any given time, the first question you should ask yourself is not, “What spiritual gifts do I have?”  No, no, no.  The very first question you should ask yourself is, “How repentant am I—how repentant am I for my sins—and how often do I express my repentance humbly and sincerely and honestly by bringing those sins to Jesus in the confessional?
It’s my simple prayer today that in the future the Holy Spirit will be very, very active both in your life and in mine.