In our theological language we speak of the Son as begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit as “spirated,” which means to be breathed out. The Holy Spirit is breathed out by the Father and the Son, the union of their love so intimate and substantial, that he is a third fully equal and one with them.
Pentecost is our annual celebration of this same Holy Spirit breathed out on the world through the Church. The breath of God is given to the Church headed by Christ to guide her members into the fullness of life. That is why we receive this life giving breath: we receive the Spirit in order to be drawn in, and to draw others into, the union of Christ’s Body on pilgrimage to the Father.
The celebration of Pentecost this year will be unlike any other in recent memory, and it will be so because of the tragic irony that we find ourselves contending with a virulent disease whose most notable symptom is its denial of breath. This Pentecost we find ourselves longing to be filled with God’s breath in a world struggling for air.
Of course, compounding the suffering still for many is our inability to physically gather in fellowship as the Church to mark this great solemnity. However necessary this is, it should nevertheless be a source of great lament, for this separation is not the norm. We are inherently social creatures: creatures, who, though spirit, are also flesh. We are tactile, and the manifestation of our communion in spirit is most readily apparent in our intimate gestures of fleshly embrace. Our highest form of union is precisely when we huddle together in joy and thanksgiving to feast on the body of Christ and thereby to become ourselves one body in and through him.
That is the norm, and any derivation from it must necessarily constitute a diminishment, an undeniable deprivation in our lives. But the intimacy of bodies, the intimacy of the Eucharistic fellowship of Christ’s body the Church, is conducive toward one shared and singular end — namely, the perfection of intimacy in God’s life, which is simply love. Where love is absent, no matter how many persons are crammed together, regardless of how many hosts are distributed, there is no unity; there is no life.
The world before the outbreak of the coronavirus was already significantly marked by fracture. Unfortunately, in many ways the virus has only intensified that reality, deepening the fissures. Perhaps most disappointingly, the Church herself has not been immune to this developing fragmentation.
Those of us left wondering how to mark Pentecost this year amid social distancing might simply recall that in spite of our absence from public worship, the Spirit’s invitation to the Church to offer fitting worship (the capacity for this being itself pure gift) persists. This is so because “Church” is not simply showing up for an hour in a building on Sunday (or maybe a few more times a week).
Rather, the Church is realized in the graced response of her members to God’s summons for loving unity. Not the all too prevalent pseudo-unity of an imposed uniformity that ignores, denies or suppresses conflict. Rather, genuine unity, the reconciliation that takes place in truth and charity, necessarily making it a work of God. The Church is most fully herself when she cooperates with the Holy Spirit to foster that unity. In this alone does she convey genuine gratitude for the gift of God’s life, and in turn offers fitting worship expressive of that gratitude.
These weeks of quarantine have eliminated much from our lives (both temporarily and permanently), but it has not eliminated the possibilities for such worship. In fact, in a world, in a nation, even in a Church wracked by disunity, the need for the fitting worship of unity sought is needed now more than ever. Of course, that type of unity — real unity — is not something we achieve on our own. That unity so described is a reflection of, and a participation in, the unsurpassable union of God: Father, Son, and Spirit. It, therefore, requires us always to turn to God in supplication, imploring his favor. And that is why once more at Pentecost we must cry out, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
As is the case in all worship, this worship of lives seeking the communion of our brothers and sisters — which is but the most telling sign of our desired communion with God — is the meeting of the human and the divine. God initiates, but with the expectation of response. There is simply no such thing as passive worship. We are most fully active through the complete offering of ourselves, which is only our replication of the self-offering of God that has made our very lives possible. In this willingness to cooperate, in our openness to be filled with God’s breath, we, as the Church’s members, are able to in turn breathe out God’s breath to a suffocating world. Despite what we must now endure this Pentecost, the possibility for this — and the challenge to do this — still remains.
Father Andrew Clyne writes from Maryland.