Every year I make a point of reading through Acts of the Apostles between Easter and Pentecost. I do so to remind myself of the power unleashed by Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension and bestowed on the Church at Pentecost, a power that is fully available to us. This year I got a late start!
All four Gospels record that John the Baptist prophesied that in contrast with his own baptism in water for repentance, the one coming after him would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire,” as Matthew and Luke say! Interestingly, this prophecy is not fulfilled in the Gospels themselves.
The bestowal of the Spirit could not take place until Jesus had been “glorified” (John 7:39). Peter explains why Ascension precedes Pentecost: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out this which you see and hear” (Acts 2:33).
Acts begins with the Risen Lord foretelling the imminent fulfillment of “the promise of the Father” that Jesus had spoken about to his disciples: “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).
That baptism with the Spirit occurs on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, Mary, the mother of Jesus, his brothers, and other disciples—about 120 people all together (Acts 1:14-15). The arrival of the Spirit is marked by miraculous signs—the sound of wind, tongues of fire, the ability to understand unknown languages—and by altered behavior of Jesus disciples—spiritual joy that appears to skeptics as drunkenness, and by prophecy, inspired speech in other languages (“tongues”) telling “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11). The immediate consequence of this Spirit-baptism is a holy boldness that enables the once fearful Peter to preach with power and great effectiveness.
What many readers fail to notice is that Acts reports similar “altered behavior” on the part of subsequent groups of believers in Jesus who are “baptized in the Holy Spirit”:
- Philip’s Samaritan converts (Acts 8:14-19)
- Gentile believers in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:45-47)
- Disciples of John the Baptist who come to faith in Jesus (Acts 19:6)
What’s the point? For the early Church reception of the Spirit was not merely an article of faith regarding the effects of baptism or confirmation. It was an experiential reality that was so obvious and universal among the early Christians that St. Paul points to it as a proof against the doctrine of the Judaizers in Gal 3:2-5:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
What about Catholics today? How many have so distinct an experience of the Spirit in their lives that they could find Paul’s argument persuasive?
Baptized as infants and confirmed in early adolescence, very many Catholics lack the understanding, desire, faith, or repentance necessary for the reception of these sacraments to be fully efficacious when they receive them (see Catechism 1131). Consequently for many, the grace of Pentecost, the experience of being “baptized in the Spirit” that Jesus came to bestow, awaits their understanding, faith, and desire.
Pope Benedict spoke of this in 2008: “Let us rediscover, dear brothers and sisters, the beauty of being baptized in the Holy Spirit.”
As Pentecost approaches, let us ask in faith that the Holy Spirit be poured out on us (Luke 11:9-13; John 7:37-39; Eph 5:18-20), so that we may be renewed in the Spirit as the Church in Jerusalem was in its time of need (Acts 4:31-35). Let us be docile to the Holy Spirit and open ourselves to his charisms as Blessed John Paul urged us to do.
Between Ascension and Pentecost let us read through Acts again to stir our faith regarding “the promise of the Father,” to remember what the Church was like under the powerful influence of the Gift Jesus came to bestow, and to renew our zeal for the mission entrusted to us.