When we are children, we need our parents to watch over us. We haven’t learned yet that we’ll get burned if we touch the stove or that it’s dangerous to run into the street. As we grow older, though, we start learning how to protect ourselves and how to stay out of trouble. The discipline that our parents imposed on us, often against our will, eventually comes to be an almost automatic way of thinking and living for us. We absorb from our parents values and attitudes that will be with us for the rest of our lives. We know how true this is because so often we catch ourselves saying something to our children or grandchildren that our parents used to say to us. We internalize the messages we received from our parents and act on them as we mature.
When Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as a river of living water that flows from within a person in the Gospel reading for the vigil Mass, he is describing much the same reality. When the Holy Spirit dwells in us, then we have Jesus’ values and attitudes operating within us. We see things as he sees them. We begin to recognize him in the people we meet. We begin to understand that it is Jesus speaking to us when we read the Bible. Just as we absorb our parents’ attitudes and values by the discipline they imposed on us, so Jesus’ word begins to penetrate our hearts and minds through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we begin to change from within.
How does this all take place? When we come to believe in Jesus, when we grow in knowledge of Scripture and receive the sacraments, the Holy Spirit begins to work on our minds and hearts so that we grow in the knowledge and love of God. And as we grow in that knowledge and love, we come to be more like Jesus. Before we know it, we will be surprising ourselves by saying inspirational words and doing kind deeds. Just as we often catch ourselves saying something our parents used to say, we’ll catch ourselves being moved by the Spirit to speak words of comfort and encouragement to those we meet.
The next thing that happens as the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us is that the rivers of living water begin to overflow in us. We can no longer keep Jesus and his word all to ourselves. Like the apostles on Pentecost day, we can no longer contain the joy that loving God gives us, and we have to tell others about it. The Holy Spirit makes us witnesses to his power and love at work in us.
We live in a culture that tells us that religion is something private, something we should keep to ourselves. We typically don’t care what our neighbors believe or what religion they profess, as long as they don’t tell us about it. However, Christians who have really experienced the power and love of the Holy Spirit can’t keep the message to themselves. We can’t keep the lid on the rivers of living water bubbling up from within us. And thank goodness for that! Where would we be if the apostles had decided that Jesus’ resurrection would be their little secret? Where would we be if those who witnessed Jesus’ miracles and heard his words didn’t pass the stories along to the next generation of believers? And what will become of our children and grandchildren if we fail to share with them the power of God’s love made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ?
Today’s feast, Pentecost, is the celebration of the birthday of the church. We are the church because of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit through faith now lives in the hearts of over two billion women and men who call themselves Christians. There are women in Africa, men in Asia, children in Europe, old ladies in South America, and teenagers in Australia who believe and worship just as we do. This didn’t all take place over the past two thousand years because the apostles had a good business plan and marketing strategy. It happened because the Holy Spirit worked in a powerful way, giving authority to the words of those who preach and making those who hear ready to give their hearts over in faith. That same Holy Spirit is among us now strengthening me as I preach and touching your hearts as you listen.
The task now falls to us who have been given to drink of this life-giving water in the Spirit of Jesus. Will we keep it to ourselves? Or will we speak about to everyone we meet so that all creation, which is groaning and in agony, can be transformed by the values and the attitudes of Jesus, our Savior?
Lord, no eye has seen
no ear has heard,
no heart has conceived
the things you have prepared
for those who love you.
Set us ablaze
with the fire of the Holy Spirit,
that we may love you
in and above all things
and so receive the reward
you have promised us
through Christ our Lord.
—from A Christian’s Prayer Book