As we hear the post-resurrectional Scriptures about the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the fledgling Church at Pentecost, several aspects of the Spirit's coming are apparent: ways we can describe it, things that happen, expectations.
A noise like a strong driving wind. Tongues as of fire. Disciples speaking many languages. The gifts of the Holy Spirit given for the benefit of the whole Church. The power to forgive sins, and the power to retain them.
The imagery of the Spirit as a kind of wind moving over the unformed creation at the beginning, of God breathing the gift of life into Adam whom he made from the clay of the earth, and the action of Jesus breathing on the disciples when he said "receive the Holy Spirit" bring to mind that noise like a strong driving wind. It is the same Spirit who was present at the creation, by whom God gave life to human beings, and with whom Jesus empowered his apostles for their mission.
John the Baptist preached that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. On the road to Emmaus the disciples encountered the risen Jesus, and after he revealed himself and vanished they said "were not our hearts burning within us as he explained the Scriptures to us on the road?" The fire of God's love is the same Spirit again, burning away sin and filling us with the light of Christ.
In the Book of Genesis we read that pride led people to build a tower as if they could reach heaven, and God confounded their language into many. At Pentecost the many human languages are no longer a barrier to the communication of the Gospel. Whether the apostles were speaking many languages or those present heard them as if they were, the one language of the Spirit is working for us.
"Many gifts, the same Spirit." How often have we heard this! The richness of human life and the many gifts and talents which we enjoy as a community are seen now as given by the Holy Spirit "for some benefit." No one receives such gifts for his own use solely, or for his own benefit. All are given to build up the Church of Jesus Christ, so that the Gospel may everywhere be preached.
And now the most awesome part. "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." As Catholics we recognize the incredible gift which Jesus has given to the Church, his own gift of forgiving sins. How often Jesus walked through the community of Israel healing and forgiving sins! And now the Church can do the same.
We talk a lot about forgiveness, and yet in the Church today in our culture we struggle to accept the gift which the Spirit brings from Jesus. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation the Church exercises the very power of Jesus to forgive sins, and yet so many people do not often take advantage of this grace. Some Christians don't even believe it.
During his ministry Jesus looked into people's hearts and souls and saw what was there. A need for healing, for forgiveness, for love, for compassion, for hope, for freedom. He healed their bodies and minds, and he healed their sin-wounded souls. He forgave sins readily. He loved. He had compassion on the hurting. He brought hope to those who had none. He brought the freedom of the sons and daughters of God to all who would hear him.
If you haven't heard these words of absolution for a while, you need to hear them again: "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and the resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
What did you think the Sacrament of Reconciliation was about anyway? Healing, forgiveness, love, compassion, hope, freedom. It is the most important gift which the Spirit brings: forgiving sins.
Fr. John G. Stillmank is Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Madison and pastor of St. Andrew Parish, Verona, and St. William Parish, Paoli.