Be brave, I have overcome the world … Jn. 16:33
While we celebrate Christmas to mark the birthday of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the celebration of Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church itself. The celebration comes 50 days after Easter precisely because the event itself occurred in the course of the celebration of the eponymous Jewish feast that occurred 50 days after the Passover. This feast constitutes the life wire of the Church, marked by the memory of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which continues to nurture the Church.
When we reflect on the Holy Spirit, we must focus on a few key points. First, the free gift of the Holy Spirit marked the seamless relationship and continuity in the life of the Holy Trinity. Secondly, it was a fulfilment of the promise made by Jesus Christ before His death to His own Apostles. Thirdly, its presence is the glue and energiser that has held, nourished and sustained the Church together. It is through its inspiration that we can call Jesus Christ, Lord (1 Cor. 12:3)
As His mission on earth drew to a close, Jesus reminded His Apostles of the difficulties that lay ahead. If the world hates you, He said to them, just remember that it has hated me first. If you belonged to the world, then the world would love its own…If people persecuted me, they will persecute you too; if they obeyed my teachings, they will obey yours too…Whoever hates me hates my father also. They would not have been guilty of sin if I had not done to them the things that no one else ever did. As it is, they have seen what I did and they hate both me and my father. This, however, was bound to happen so that what is written in their Law may come true; They hated me for no reason at all (Jn. 15: 18, 20).
The followers of Jesus had carried this great burden amidst confusion and self-doubt about their own future and safety, as well as the possibility that all this may have been just a dream. The story of the apostles, beginning with their leader, Peter at the trial of Jesus showed clearly that they had begun to doubt their Master. But, again, Jesus had warned them: I have told you this so that you will not give up your faith. You will be expelled from synagogues and time will come when anyone who kills you will think that by doing this, they are serving God (Jn. 16:1-2). Despite painting this dooms day scenario and gloomy picture of the future that lay ahead, Jesus lets His apostles understand that all this fits into a well written plan by God: I have told you this, so that when the time comes for them to do these things, you will remember that I told you (Jn. 6:4).
A most important point to note about the gift of the Holy Spirit is the timing. Apart from painting the gloomy picture about the future, we must understand that Jesus was coming to the end of His life. Naturally, the Apostles were heart broken and could not understand why Jesus was speaking that way. Recall that earlier on before his denial, Peter had pulled out his sword and cut off the ear of the High Priest’s slave, Malcus, to show how prepared he was to defend his Lord and Master (Jn. 18:10). Peter had wondered, when others turned their back on Jesus, to whom shall we go, you have the message of eternal life (Jn. 6:68).
Jesus says that the coming of the Holy Spirit is tied to His earthly death and that one has to happen before the other. I am telling you the truth, He said, it is better for you that I go away because if I do not go, the Helper, the Holy Spirit, will not come to you…But if I do go away, I will send Him to you…I am telling you the truth. You will cry and weep, but the world will be glad, you will be sad, but your sadness will turn to gladness…I will see you again and your hearts will be filled with gladness, the kind of gladness that no one can take away from you (Jn. 16: 7, 8, 20, 22).
It is the promise of the Holy Spirit that enabled Jesus to assure His disciples that: I am telling you the truth. Those who believe in me will do what I do, yes, they will do even greater things because I am going to the Father (Jn. 14: 12). So, when we look back as Christians today, what lessons are there for us to learn? Clearly, on this feast of the Holy Spirit, we Christians must ask some really deep questions about our faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is understandable that we have become confused by the inaction of a derelict state, whose inefficiency has turned it into an accomplice in the violence against its own children. But these times still challenge us to come to terms with the real message of our Lord and Saviour, whose message was Love.
Many readers might already be familiar with the many versions of the story of the village chief and the mad man. As it went, the chief went to the village river to have a bath. While he was in the water, a mad man came by. He saw the chief’s dress and decided to try it on. He had dressed up in the chief’s attire, when the chief saw him. He shouted at him to take off the clothes, but the mad man took to his heels. Naked, the chief stepped out of water in pursuit of the mad man. As they ran through the village square, the villagers came out shouting that their chief had gone mad! Big men came and held him, but he shouted that he was not mad and that it was a mad man who had stolen his clothes. But the villagers did not believe him. The mad man was dressed up and could not be mad. It was their naked chief that had gone mad!
Christians have become confused as to whether their God is too soft to confront a more aggressive god, whose disciples are going around murdering other human beings. Sadly, in this state of helplessness, we seem unable and unwilling to look at the suffering face of Jesus Christ. We do not wish to see the cross or understand its message. We are right to be afraid. We also want security in all its forms. However, when we are threatened by fear, we must look back at the Pentecost event.
Yet, it is ironic that it is when the apostles of Jesus were confused and terribly frightened that the Holy Spirit came upon them. An uneducated Peter delivers his first sermon and three thousand people are converted on the first day (Acts 2: 41). When the people ask what they should do, Peter tells them to repent and turn away from sin (Acts 2:38).
Our country is relentlessly hemorrhaging from fratricidal blood, as violence continues to spread in our land. Fear, suspicion, anger, bitterness and indignation stalk the land, as brother is set against brother. Yet, the Holy Spirit is a unifier. The same spirit that united the diverse tongues in Jerusalem summons us to do the same by letting the Holy Spirit cleanse our land. Let us recall the great gifts of the Holy Spirit, as we know them: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Knowledge, Fortitude, Piety and Fear of the Lord. The times are hard, but Christians must stand apart, true to the virtues and promises of their Lord and Master.
Let us, in this Year of Mercy be people of great hope. Times are hard and challenging, but we must stand together. Every night is followed by a new day. Ours has been a tale of too many long nights, but we must not surrender to cynicism and self- deprecation. We were here as a people before corruption came. We will remain here no matter the weapons of corruption. The war against corruption will be won first in our hearts before we achieve national victory. It is time for critical and honest self-examination. Let each of us give an account of our personal stewardship.
It is true that we are a traumatised society and the manifestations of the trauma are evident in our personal and community lives. But, with the Holy Spirit, we have nothing to fear. The Holy Spirit will disentangle all the webs of confusion in our personal lives as Christians. St. Paul assures us: The spirit comes to help us when we are weak. The spirit pleads to God in groans that words cannot express, and God who sees into our hearts, knows what the thought of the spirit is (Rom. 8: 26-7).
We often feel helpless and overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems. We are disappointed by the abysmal failure of our governments. Let us invite the Holy Spirit in all honesty because, John has said: Who can defeat the world? Only the person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (1 Jn. 5:5). The weapons of victory are in our hands given to us by the Holy Spirit. Let us, therefore, rise in confidence, encouraged by the words of Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890) in his timeless song:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
(This message of Pentecost was delivered by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, Catholic Diocese of Sokoto on Sunday, May 15, 2016)