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The Feast of the Spirit is the Feast of the Law: Pentecost Sunday

The feast of the Spirit is the feast of the Law.

This seems like a very surprising statement. Aren’t the Spirit and the Law opposites? If we describe someone as a “free spirit,” we might not mean that he or she is a criminal, but rigorously following the law probably is not what we imagine. But yet, the great feast of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate today, Pentecost, was originally the Jewish feast of the giving of the law.

Nothing in salvation history is an accident. God certainly wanted to tell us something important when He poured out the Holy Spirit on the apostles on the day when Jews from around the world gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the day when, thousands of years before, God gave them the law on Mount Sinai – the ten commandments.

The first and most obvious point is that on Mount Sinai, God wrote His law on stone tablets, but at Pentecost, He writes it on the hearts of His followers. That is to say, the old law, even though it was a great sign of God’s love for the Jewish people in teaching them the ways of holiness, was still a law that was from outside. It held the Jewish people to a higher moral standard than the peoples around them, but it did not impart the grace necessary to fulfill its exacting standards.

The new law of the Gospel, the law written by the Spirit on the hearts of believers, is very different. The new law requires an even higher moral standard – calling us not only to treat others as we would like to be treated, but to imitate the self-sacrificial love of Christ on the Cross. So it is not at all a matter of not requiring things that used to be required. Rather the lowering moral standards, the new law gives us grace, which enables us to fulfill its exacting precept of a more radical form of love in imitation of Christ.

That the new law is written on the hearts of believers does not mean primarily, though, that the Spirit only gives us more grace to fulfill God’s commands. This would still be conformity to a law that comes from outside. Rather, the new law of grace given by the Spirit, transforms the Christian heart to desire only what is authentically good. It is not primarily a matter of being able to overcome ourselves – the fulfillment of the new law is when there is nothing left to overcome.

In popular culture, it is common to hear that people want to “follow their heart.” Sometimes people even muster up one of the most misquoted lines in all of Catholic theology from St. Augustine: “Love, and do what you will.” So long as we follow our hearts, so long as we act out of love, we can’t be too far off track, right?

Well, that depends on what we mean by “love.” If by “love” we just mean a really strong feeling, then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see it that way. But this would be a cheap love, a vague affection lacking commitment. The love that corresponds to the new law of the Spirit written on the hearts of believers, rather, is the love that seeks the authentic good of the other. And the authentic good of the other is known most perfectly known to God, who reveals His loving plan in Scripture and in Tradition.

So there is a qualified sense in which we can “follow our hearts” to true love – when our hearts have been transformed by the Spirit to desire what God desires, the desires of our hearts will only be directed towards good things, and we will be able to follow St. Augustine’s dictum, “love, and do what you will.” Or in the words of the Psalms, “Delight in the Lord, and he will give thee the requests of thy heart.”

How does this happen? Firstly, it happens through prayer, by earnestly imploring the Holy Spirit every day to burn away our affections for all that is not ordered to our authentic good, “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Secondly, the new law of the Spirit does not cancel the old law, but builds upon it. The law given to the Jews was a tutoring in right conduct. This means that the Spirit transforms our hearts by listening to those whom the Spirit has inspired – the authors of Sacred Scripture – and those whom the Spirit has chosen and equipped to lead the Church, those to whom the Lord promised that the Spirit would “teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” – you here referring to the Apostles, whose office is continued in the Church by the bishops and the Pope.

This means that the action of the Holy Spirit does not, contrary to what many have claimed, ever bring us to “new understandings” or “new paradigms” that contradict the moral law. Rather, God gives us His Spirit to write that law more deeply on our hearts, giving us the grace to fulfill the moral law and purges away any desire contrary to it.

This process of purifying our sinful desires will not be easy. The Holy Spirit today appears over the Apostles as tongues of fire. For ancient peoples, fire was necessary for life. Fire heated water to be used for cleansing; fire was necessary for roasting meat for healthy eating; fire was the center of the home, with the words for “hearth” and “home” being the same in many languages. But fire, while being essential for life, was surely even more dangerous then than that it is now. That the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in the form of fire shows that they were given immense power.

The Apostles shared that fire of the Holy Spirit with those they baptized and confirmed, and the fire that gives life also acted as a purging fire, cleansing those new Christians of their sins. Having hearts transformed to have only good desires will likewise mean a difficult process of purging for us, purging away those desires for anything sinful and even for things that, while not sinful in and of themselves, could nevertheless be roadblocks or distractions on the way to salvation. “[L]ove is a thief, which robs us of all earthly affections; so that we can say, ‘And what else do I desire, but Thee alone, O my Lord?’”

Is there a contradiction, though, between the new law of the Spirit, the law written on the hearts of believers rather than stone tablets, and what Christ tells the Apostles, seeming to operate still within the old paradigm? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Isn’t this a bit too harsh? Don’t all of us have the experience of loving the Lord, but failing in some way in that struggle to keep his commandments?

Notice, though, what Christ does not say. He does not say, “If you keep my commandments, I will love you.” God’s love for us is not dependent on good behavior. So keeping God’s commandments is not a condition of His love, but it is an important consequence of His love. When our hearts have been purified by the action of the Holy Spirit, it gradually becomes easier to keep the Lord’s commandments.

So what do we do then, when the opposite seems to happen in our lives, when it is still quite difficult to keep the Lord’s commands? We need to ask the Holy Spirit for an increase in the theological virtue of charity – quite simply, to have more of God’s love in our hearts.

I told my spiritual director once, “I think that I can do an okay job of loving God. The really difficult part for me is loving other people.” He laughed and pointed out that this struggle might not be as unique as I seemed inclined to believe.

Loving other people certainly is not easy, but it is largely the measure of whether or not our love for God is authentic. It seems odd that love is actually a commandment – God commands us to love one another. Isn’t love not really love if it is the result of a commandment?

Firstly, love is a commandment because, well, what’s the alternative? A suggestion? A nice idea? A good option? None of those seem worthy of the importance of love.

Secondly, if loving our neighbor weren’t a divine commandment, many of us simply wouldn’t do it. We need the motivation.

Most importantly, though, we can only understand the divine commandment to love when we understand the Holy Spirit’s role in helping us to keep the new law of charity. This is where things really get important – it is through the power of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts that the divine command to love one another actually becomes possible by slowly conforming our wills to God’s, so that we actually do begin to desire only what He Himself loves.

Is this tough? Yes, definitely. But this Holy Spirit is not just a warm flame or a cute dove. He is the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. And, “if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Think about that: The Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is the same Spirit who, through Baptism and Confirmation, dwells in the hearts of Christian believers, who is rest in our labors, solace in woe, sweet coolness in the heat, our soul’s most welcome guest. That Spirit is able to burn away whatever would lead us away from our heavenly destiny, and help us to desire finally only what is good.

Thus, animated by the Holy Spirit, we can pray with St. Alphonsus: “My God, my love, my all, I love Thee, I desire Thee, I sigh after Thee. Come, O Holy Spirit, and destroy in me by Thy sacred fire every affection which has not Thee for its object. Grant that I may be all Thine, and that I may conquer everything to please Thee.”

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

Pentecost Sunday, A.D. MMXXII


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