Pentecost Sunday – Year A


Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A. 
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Acts 2:1-11
Ps 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13
Jn 20:19-23

One of my most enjoyable duties as a priest is working with couples preparing for marriage. Although weddings involve much planning and many details, the couples are generally happy and optimistic, full of energy and hope. They are cheerful people.

However, every priest has to deal with impossible wedding requests. Based on movies and television and YouTube, couples may think that anything goes, or nearly so. For example:

“Can we be married on a beach at dawn?” No.

“Can the cantor sing ‘Memory’ from Cats?” No.

“Can the wedding party dress up like cowboys or medieval knights?” No.

“Can my dog be the ring bearer?” Hmmm…Is it a golden retriever? Wait – no!

One groom actually asked, “Can we play the song ‘We Will Rock You / We are the Champions’ as we leave the church? It will really get people psyched up for the reception!”

I think you know the answer I gave him.

One couple asked, “Can we write our own vows?” I told them that priests don’t get to write our own Eucharistic prayers, and couples don’t get to write their own wedding vows. The Church has certain special vows and time-honored prayers, and they are the same for everyone. But the bride-to-be was insistent, and pleaded, “Just read the vows we have written. They are really nice!” Wanting to be kind (but also understanding why some priests take to drink), I agreed to look over their improvised vows, which were rather lengthy. The heart of the matter was this line: “Today, I declare my love for you. Today, I am yours and you are mine. The past is over, and we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Only the earth, sea, and sky are eternal. But on this day, I am yours.”

No doubt, you have already seen a major problem. Aside from the fact that the earth, sea, and sky are most definitely not eternal, the vows were completely focused on the wedding day. But of course, a wedding is just one day, whereas a marriage is about tomorrow and the day after and all the months and years to come. When a man and woman exchange vows, they may not know what tomorrow will bring, but they are committing themselves to whatever future comes, however happy or sad, however sick or healthy, however rich or poor. This couple meant well, but their homemade oaths were not true wedding vows. There was no promise of permanence, no pledge given “until death do us part.”

Impermanence is a fact of our existence. Health has always been impermanent: no matter what we eat or how often we exercise, no matter what products we purchase or what surgeries we endure, we become more liable to sickness and slower to recover from it. Memory is especially impermanent: names and facts we once had at our fingertips become harder to recall. Fashions in clothes and cars constantly change. Actors and writers and political candidates are hot, but then go cold. Tastemakers and power brokers and advertisers relentlessly pursue the Next Big Thing.

But in these days, is it not also the human spirit which becomes momentary and insubstantial? The bonds of friendship and service, the covenants of duty and sacrifice, strain and creak and split and unwind. Families fall apart over ancient quarrels and new hardships, marriages come undone, priests and religious abandon their vocations, and Catholics drift or flee from the practice of the faith. The proud, enervated spirits of our time use the word always, but do not mean it; they claim fidelity, but do not keep it. And these defections of the heart no longer seem strange to us. We hear them smoothly excused with words like “I’m only human,” “People make mistakes,” “That’s the way of the world,” “Nothing lasts.”

Today, on the feast of Pentecost, we must accept that all of these excuses are partly true. Not one of us is loving enough to last a single year of marriage, strong enough to resist one week of temptation, faithful enough to stick with the Gospel for even a day, hopeful enough to pray for one hour. The Father does not expect bits of dust and breath like us to stand firm on our own. And so Christ says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Consider the apostles, frightened, hiding behind a locked door. They are not promising candidates for even a few months of preaching the Gospel, much less a lifetime. Jesus remedies this situation. He says, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Christ knows that if these men are going to endure in the face of hardships and persecutions, nothing will do but they must have God Himself within them. So Christ speaks the words that start the Church: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

St. Paul tells us today, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” To say that Christ is Lord is to become a permanent disciple, to turn my life over to him forever. No future lord will take his place, no foreign gods will conscript my allegiance. Without the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is impossible, because the Christian life is all that I am forever.

Pentecost is power, power to follow Jesus Christ, to be perpetually penitent and prayerful, to be unceasingly grateful, undeterred in our love of the truth, and unsparing in our mercy. Jesus sends us forth as the Father sent him, but we are not equal to the task. And so we are not sent alone. The Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, giving birth to the wonder of true permanence, the miracle of unfailing love.