This sermon was preached at the 11am High Mass on Whit Sunday.
The Bible is so sparing in the incidental details that it gives of the ministry of Our Lord and the Apostles, that when such details are given you can be sure that some significance is intended. When some of those who witnessed the prodigious wonders of that first Pentecost morning suggested that the Apostles were drunk, St Peter’s defence was that they weren’t because it was only the third hour of the day, which is about 9:00am according our way of reckoning. At the literal level, St Peter was drawing his hearers’ attention to the fact that on festival days, the Jews didn’t start eating and drinking until their morning devotions were over, which was about midday. But there is a deeper significance to the timing of Pentecost than this. In his Commentary on Acts, St Cyril of Alexandria says:
For He who, as Mark relates, was crucified at the third hour, now at the third hour sent down His grace. For His grace is not other than the Spirit’s grace, but He who was then crucified, who also gave the promise, made good that which He promised.
In other words, there is a direct link between the Pentecostal grace which was poured out upon the Apostles and the suffering and death of Our Lord on the cross, and you can’t have the one without the other. This matters, because throughout the history of the Church there have been those who suppose that you can. From St Paul’s over enthusiastic converts in the Church at Corinth in the first century, through the Convulsionaries of St Medard in the seventeenth century, to the charismatic movement of our own time, there is a type of Christianity which places an undue emphasis on the extraordinary, and which is inclined to condemn as second class and inauthentic, any Christianity which is not marked by it.
If this is the case, what are we to make of the undoubted fact that miracles do occur in the lives of the saints, not least in the case of our own Holy Father St Philip, who was praying on the eve of Pentecost 1544, when there appeared to him what seemed to be a globe of fire which entered his mouth and afterwards precipitated a dilation of the heart? The answer, or at least an answer is given by St John Henry Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua. He says:
Catholics believe that they [i.e. miracles] happen in any age of the Church … The Apostles wrought them in evidence of their divine mission; and with this object they have been sometimes wrought by Evangelists of countries since as they are granted to Evangelists, so are they granted … to other holy men
But although Newman was very clear that miracles do not of themselves create belief, he would have agreed with the observation of Fr Jonathan Robinson that:
Miracles call attention to the presence of something strange; perhaps, they call attention to the presence of a mystery that we are invited to accept. A holy man or woman who works miracles, or is the subjects of some of the various physical phenomena of mysticism, provides a kind of evidence for what the mystic believes; what happens to him shows that his message is to be taken seriously.
Newman says something else which is worth noting regarding miracles:
And since, generally, they are granted to faith and prayer, therefore in a country in which faith and prayer abound, they will be more likely to occur, than where and when faith and prayer are not.
In other words, faith and prayer are necessary preconditions for the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, even though they are not, of themselves, sufficient ones. There is never a time when faith and prayer are not necessary, or when it is wrong to pray for an outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, but perhaps we could say that they are needed now more than ever. We are in the midst of an extraordinary situation, in which our churches remain closed and in which the need of men and women to worship is implicitly denied. You can get divorced, but you can’t get married. You can have an abortion, but you can’t get your child baptised. The House of Commons can meet, but the House of God cannot. This says an awful lot about our priorities as a nation, but it would be idle to pretend that things were better before the lockdown, or that they will necessarily be better after it. The lockdown and the response of our government to it is a peculiarly stark reminder that we are living in a culture which is characterised by an aggressive secular liberalism which refuses to acknowledge the transcendent and which is parting company to an ever greater extent with the Christian culture from which it is, nevertheless, derived.
The only answer to this is strong faith and fervent prayer that when this is all over, and when we as Christians have to roll up our sleeves and start clearing up the mess that is left, the Holy Ghost will give us the gifts we need to “call attention to the presence of something strange … a mystery that we are invited to accept”. That mystery is nothing less than the good news of the Gospel; that God became man to save us from our sins and open the way to that eternal bliss for which we were created. It is the same mystery that the Church proclaimed on the first Pentecost morning and it remains as true, as fresh, and as necessary as it was then. And in the same way that the graces poured out on the Church on that never to be forgotten morning were the fruit of the Cross, so may the sufferings we are enduring at the present time be the prelude to a New Evangelisation in which the sober intoxication of the Holy Ghost will enable us to call our poor benighted country back to God.