In that first reading today, we heard about how the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost was sent to the disciples. Up to this point in the story, Jesus had been present bodily to the disciples. He taught them. He led them, admonished them when it was necessary and showed them the way by his example. The community came together around him, his tangible, bodily presence.
After Jesus ascends to heaven, his disciples received the Holy Spirit. From this day forward, they themselves, guided by the Spirit, were to be, collectively, the body of Christ in the world. No longer guided by Jesus in His bodily presence, they had to rely on the Spirit guiding them in their hearts.
In the Pentecost reading today, the Spirit was sent as “tongues of fire”, resting on each of the disciples. The visual contrast is striking. Previously Jesus, in his physical presence, interacted with and spoke to the disciples. The Spirit, in contrast, was experienced as fire: something less tangible, dynamic, illuminating, at times painful and searing like fire, but at other times warm and comforting. No longer an external presence, the Spirit resides within each believer, inspiring, admonishing, illuminating through prayer and the movements of our hearts.
When the disciples received the Spirit, they found unity in diversity: though from different nations, each hears others in their own language. Later in the Book of Acts, we hear about the great harmony: “they would sell their property and possessions,” the Scripture says, “and divide them among all according to their need (2:45)”
There were, however, also struggles and trials. Stephen the deacon was killed violently; the apostles were repeatedly arrested, tried, imprisoned and sometimes beaten and stoned. Disagreements and arguments arose among the disciples, and in response they showed cowardice as well as courage. The new life in the Spirit had its share of hardships and struggles. Yet, even in the midst of the hardships, the Spirit gave them the strength, courage, understanding and love they needed to continue their journey and bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
I cannot help thinking in this connection about our journey this past year. Graduates of 2021, your final year at Notre Dame has been a challenging one. A year ago last March we sent you home to finish the semester remotely. You returned in August, but you know it has not been easy. We quickly had a spike in COVID cases that compelled us to go on line for two weeks. You rallied, and we brought the case numbers under control, but then we had to deal with the inevitable waves of COVID cases that have characterized the pandemic everywhere. It was a year of masks, social distancing and, for a number of you, weeks in quarantine in local hotels.
We had to ask a great deal of each of you, and I know the restrictions and the stress of the year were burdensome. There were tensions and disagreements, and we made our share of mistakes. I know I made mine. But we found a way to get through it. We found the strength, the courage, the perseverance and the love to come through it together, here on this campus. I hope you, each of you, are as proud of that as I am.
If you are like me, there were some dark days. At times I sat in my office in the Main Building or my apartment at Fischer and wondered if we would get through the year or what our next step would be. Yet it was at that time that the flame of the Spirit flickered most brightly. It seared away selfishness, comforted with its warmth, illuminated the path ahead and inspired me to take it. It gave the strength to persevere on this journey.
How about you? In this past year, where did you experience the movement of the Holy Spirit in your heart? To give you courage. To give you comfort. To give you strength. To give you love, to persevere. On this feast of Pentecost, take a moment to reflect on when you experienced the Spirit, and, if you did, give thanks for it. For that same Holy Spirit will stay with you and guide you through future challenges.
Graduates of 2021, your final year was not what we expected or hoped for. I hope, though, that in the course of it you found the Spirit’s flame in your hearts giving you the courage, perseverance and love you needed. I hope also that you take from this unexpected and in many ways unwanted year the ability to meet future challenges. When those challenges come, may the illuminating, searing, comforting, guiding flame of the Holy Spirit burn in the hearts of each of you.