[Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; 1Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23]
Tomorrow, the people of Alberta will cast their votes for our next provincial government. When we enter the polling station, officials will first verify our identity. We shall each be asked to present our ID card, the contents of which will be checked against data on file with the electoral registry. This is familiar to us. In a variety of settings, we are accustomed to the need to have verified that we are who we say we are: crossing into another country, checking into a hotel, picking up a parcel. I raise this as an entryway into the message of the biblical texts for the Solemnity of Pentecost. They speak of the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit in both establishing and verifying our identity as a Christian people.
The question of identity has become a defining hallmark of our age. How do I define myself? What is the ground of my identity? An idea that has gained wide currency is that I must create myself, irrespective of any connection with family or tradition. When this proves, unsurprisingly, only to be a cause of deep anxiety, many people will instead seek to find their identity as part of a collective, and will thus identify themselves by affiliation with a political party, an ideology, a societal movement, or by membership in a club. This all speaks of a widespread questing, a grasping even, to discover and find rest in my true identity as a human being. To this searching, the Gospel proposes the answer. Only in relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh, do I learn who I truly am. This is because in Jesus, and in no one else, we are given the full revelation of the mystery of God and the meaning and destiny of human existence. Yet, how do I come to know Jesus in this way, and myself through relation with him?
This brings us to the person and mission of the Holy Spirit. He comes to us, is sent to us by the Father and the Risen Lord, to enable us to understand who Jesus is, to see clearly what the Father has accomplished for us in him, and thus lead us to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. In the passage from First Corinthians, we hear Saint Paul put it this way: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” By the wondrous working of the Holy Spirit in our minds and hearts, we come to know Jesus Christ and find our true selves in him. Jesus is the ground of my true identity. By placing all my faith in who he is, I learn who I am and my heart finds rest.
From Saint Paul’s teaching and that of the other scriptural passages, we also see that the Holy Spirit not only establishes our true identity in Jesus Christ but also enables us to verify it before others. Let’s return to the ID card to be presented tomorrow at the polling station. There, electoral officials will look for an address and a picture as verification of our identity. By the working of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to present to the world both the address and picture that verify us as Christians.
Our home address as disciples of Jesus is the Church. Saint Paul teaches that “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” He is referring here to the Body of Christ, the communion of believers, which is the Church. Here, in the community of faith, we are at home. Moreover, this is our permanent address. A government registry will show if the location of our physical dwelling places has changed over time, but once our Baptism is registered in the sacramental records of the Church, our Christian home will always remain the same. From this an important question arises: do I live with multiple addresses? The voting registry will allow us to indicate if our mailing address differs from our physical one; it could be the workplace or a post office box. As well, we might have more than one dwelling place. For the Christian, however, if our permanent address is the Church, then we must not be reachable at any other “location”, in any other milieu, that is at odds with the Gospel and teaching of the Church. Multiple addresses in this sense will obscure rather than verify our identity as followers of Jesus.
Now, let’s consider the picture used for verification purposes. On a driver’s license, for example, it is a photo, a facial image, which must be identical with the countenance of the one presenting the card. The “picture” that identifies the Christian is our manner of life. For verification of authenticity, it must match what we profess to believe. Here again the Holy Spirit is at work fashioning us as verifiable disciples by inspiring us to a Christian way of life marked by bold witness and selfless service.
We know from the Gospel text today that the apostles, after the death of the Lord, had locked themselves away in the upper room, filled with fear. Yet, once they received at Pentecost the promised Holy Spirit, they were transformed into fearless preachers of the Gospel, able to profess the faith in a multiplicity of languages. Saint Paul teaches us that the gift of the Holy Spirit is not reserved to those first apostles but is given to all. The Holy Spirit fills those who receive him with a variety of gifts, all given for the purpose of serving the common good of humanity. Bold witness to Jesus Christ and selfless service of others in his name is the picture of true Christian identity. Is this, in fact, the image I manifest to others? Does the picture I form by my life match the faith I profess? Is my Christian identity verifiable in the way I live?
In our respective self-examinations, each of us will likely find areas of life where our Christian identity is difficult to verify. These are opportunities to call upon the Holy Spirit to transform us anew by leading us to the full knowledge of Jesus Christ and complete surrender to his Lordship. There is no better place and moment to do so than here in the Eucharist, where the Holy Spirit renders Jesus truly present and draws us into communion with his paschal mystery. May the grace of this sacrament, then, lead us to know and love Jesus fully, keep us permanently at home within his Body, the Church, and transform us into courageous witnesses in service of our world.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Joseph Basilica
May 28th, 2023