The Day of Pentecost
Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.
I think that’s about the most powerful prayer I’ve ever heard or prayed. “Come, Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is, perhaps, that person of the Trinity that we least understand, though probably feel most closely.
It’s easy to imagine God, the creator. We’ve received that image through the ages of the old man with the flowing, white beard. While I doubt that’s a literal truth, it is fairly easy to put into our minds’ eyes some person, overseeing and molding us and all that is around us. Some human figure who loves us enough to create us.
And Jesus is pretty easy to imagine, too. That picture that hangs in the parish hall – a reprint of the famous 1940 painting by Warner Salman, called “Head of Christ” – what we, in seminary, called Jesus' graduation portrait - that's probably the kind of image that most of us conjure. The olive-skinned man with long, soft, flowing brown hair. And while that image is most certainly not a literal fact either – Jesus was not, after all, European, as the Western forbearers of the faith would have had us believe. But even so, even if our imagining doesn’t represent the factual truths of the man and the way he looked, we can still but together some image in our mind of what a man long ago might have looked like – even a man who was the anointed one of God.
But the Holy Spirit is a different character altogether. Traditionally – for most of history, up until relatively recently, anyway, the Holy Spirit was imagined as a feminine being. At some point, in the English language, at least, people began speaking of the Holy Spirit with male pronouns. More recently, it’s become more and more common to hear the Holy Spirit spoken of with no gender-specific pronouns.
And it’s probably not surprising that we can’t even settle on the gender of the Holy Spirit, because we can’t even settle ourselves on the physical manifestation of it. We say that the Holy Spirit is one of the “persons of the Trinity” (usually the THIRD person of the Trinity), but we rarely see images of the Holy Spirit in human form. Much more often, the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove. Or as a flame. Or as a wind.
It’s just harder to wrap our minds around this concept.
But even so, that prayer is very powerful. Come, Holy Spirit.
Anne Lamott – a writer of books on spirituality and the church, wrote a book on prayer once, in which she argues that even if you don’t know “how” to pray, that we would all be wise to think of just these three, most simple prayers: help, thanks, and wow. She calls them the three “essential” prayers and points out that much of our praying exists as variation of these three words. Help. Thanks. And Wow.
“Come, Holy Spirit.” is a particularly ancient version of that “Help” prayer. Veni, Sancte Spiritus. It calls on that aspect of God that is hardest to pin down – that one whose being is so elusive – and asks for it’s presence. For her presence.
The testimony I can give you today – the reason I believe this to be such a powerful prayer – is because it’s one that I’ve always had answered. I can pray for the winning lottery numbers. I can pray for some thing to happen, or for some person to come around, or for some luck to befall me. Through all of that I can pray and never feel like anything has come of it. But when I pray for the Holy Spirit, I always experience the Holy Spirit.
It’s rarely as violent as a rushing wind for me, like we read about in Acts this morning. I’ve never experienced anything as bold as speaking in tongues - though there are those who have. I’ve never seen tongues of flame resting on my head, or anyone else’s, nor seen a dove descending from heaven.
But I have felt the peace of the Spirit’s presence. I have been inspired when I previously felt empty. I have found paths through some of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that life inevitably provides. The Holy Spirit may not yield results for me that are as big and as bold as those we’ve read about, but the results were big enough to make a bold difference in my life.
Today, there were options for which lessons could have been read. The reading from Acts could have been read for the first or the second lesson, but also, as is only rarely the case, there was an option for the gospel lesson. They were both readings about the Holy Spirit, but the one we read today is from way back on Easter Day. It’s when the disciples are huddled together in hiding on the day when they first learn of the resurrection. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” – and with his words they were filled with the Holy Spirit as God’s enduring gift. The same enduring gift of the Holy Spirit that we continue to pass on to Christians at their baptism – that was passed to us at ours.
We usually read this lesson on the Second Sunday of Easter – or, as it’s more commonly remembered, “Doubting Thomas Sunday”. Remember, that when this scene happened, the disciples were all together – well, almost all. Thomas was not with the others. And when he heard about it, he couldn’t believe all that he was hearing. And not just that he was amazed, but that he literally could not believe. Not until he experienced it for himself.
Because deep experience and understanding of the Holy Spirit is so elusive, sometimes we can’t believe, either. It doesn’t make sense to us. We can’t put a face to the name. So that’s why I chose that gospel lesson for today: because doubt is so much a part of our lives of faith. Because sometimes we just can’t believe all that we’re told.
But the Holy Spirit – as mysterious and beyond our understanding as he, or she, or it is – is right there in front of you. Around you. In you. If, in the challenges of your life, you invoke the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, you will not be disappointed. Like the same Spirit that Jesus spoke and breathed to the disciples, the Holy Spirit is never farther away than your next breath.
The Holy Spirit will come. I can’t explain it, and I doubt you can, either. But it’s okay. Just remember that most powerful prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit.” When you’re feeling troubled and weighted down, pray those simple words. If you can’t think of what else to pray, pray that. “Come, Holy Spirit.” Pray it again and again until you’re finally able to fill in the blanks. If you’re feeling doubt, keep praying that.
And be prepared for what may come next. It may not be a violent rush of wind, or unknown languages, or tongues of fire – but it may feel that big to you. It may end up being just what you needed. Amen.