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Forgiveness is not listed among the traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit, but, in the first of two articles to mark Pentecost, a Dominican argues that it has become central to Catholicism
PENTECOST’S DESCENT of the Holy Spirit is a dramatic affair, accompanied by the most extraordinary signs. Pilgrims from various nations hear those who usually speak with Galilean voices telling of the marvellous works of God in their own languages. We take this to be a miraculous sign of something beyond human power at work within our humanity. Likewise, miraculous flames appear without natural sources of fuel and ignition, and rest on those in the house where the Apostles are sitting. It is not a case just of the extraordinary things they see but of what they hear: a sound filling the whole house “like the rush of a mighty wind”, whose only explanation is the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit. According to Acts 2, at the preaching of the Apostles, about 3,000 souls are baptised for the forgiveness of their sins and participate in the life of the newborn Church.
In John’s gospel (20:19-23), we find a quite different sign of the Spirit’s coming, one much less impressive in itself, yet perhaps no less dramatic. All Jesus does is breathe on the Apostles. By selecting this account of the risen Christ’s appearance to them on the evening of Easter Sunday as the gospel reading for Mass on the day of Pentecost, the Church asks us to consider the mystery of Pentecost not only in the light of the extraordinary signs of Acts but in the light of the very ordinary sign of human breath.
Jesus says: “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and then he breathes on them. Now that is certainly dramatic. Anyone who goes to the theatre or enjoys films knows that the smallest and simplest of gestures can be dramatic. Yet there’s nothing particularly miraculous about breathing. It’s certainly miraculous that someone who had been dead for three days is now breathing, but there’s nothing extraordinary about breathing in itself. The tongues of fire, sound from Heaven and the various languages that would come 50 days later are miraculous, but breathing is just natural, something we experience every day.
What I want to suggest here is that the very ordinariness of this sign has something important to tell us about the gift of the Spirit and his effect on our relationships with one another. I do not say that the gift of the Holy Spirit is something natural to us, as breathing is.
The special indwelling of the Spirit within you is entirely supernatural – it does not come with the gift of our humanity, but is a further gift. Breathing, eating, drinking, growing, reproducing, community, learning and so on – all these are natural to human life. Having the Holy Spirit dwell within you is of a higher order altogether, and we have some inkling of this from the miraculous signs that accompany him at Pentecost.
However, when Jesus sends this supernatural gift into the Apostles, he accompanies it with a very natural and ordinary sign – human breath. The Apostles see and hear him breathe over them, and I dare say felt his breath on them too. The clue to the importance of such a natural and ordinary sign, I suggest, lies in the next thing Jesus says to the Apostles, which reminds us how their preaching on the day of Pentecost resulted in so many baptisms for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus says: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The giving of the Spirit under the sign of breath is immediately linked with the reality of forgiveness in the Church, the power of giving absolution to those whose Christian lives have failed after baptism, transmitted by Jesus along with the Spirit to the Apostles.
Now this passage certainly has to do with the fact that the Apostles, and their successors in the ordained priesthood, are stewards of sacramental absolution. But the passage also points us to the wider truth that forgiveness has to be at the heart of any community that is shaped by the Holy Spirit. A human community can be shaped in all sorts of ways, by all sorts of different factors, by enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, sexual immorality and so on. But it can also be shaped by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control.
What is of crucial significance to the life of any community is whether or not forgiveness is a fundamental value. Because where forgiveness is not fundamental, a community will only fall apart; where relationships remain wounded, wounds attract disease and fester until there is death. But where there is forgiveness, there is always hope, always goodwill, always openness to the possibility of renewal and genuine healing. Without forgiveness at the core of its life, a community will decay, but where forgiveness is fundamental, there is always the possibility of a stronger and greater community.
It is a striking part of Jesus’ preaching that he tells us that if we do not forgive the sins of others, our heavenly Father will not forgive us. That is the deal. However difficult it may be for us to forgive the terrible wrongs that may be done to us, what Jesus announces is good news for us, because every one of us benefits from it, and without it not one of us can have real hope. Forgiveness, though, is often not easy for us, but for the Spirit of God. When we look at how our world has rebelled against God, we have to wonder that such a great mass of sin can be forgiven. And yet as St Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologica, nothing is impossible for the Holy Spirit who offers forgiveness to all, where divine power has its chief manifestation in divine mercy.
If the Spirit of the Lord can forgive all this, then surely he can give us the power to forgive when we find it difficult or even impossible. Although it may sometimes feel that we do not possess the natural power to forgive, the power to forgive is entirely natural to the Spirit of Jesus. And so, as Pope Francis puts it: “The Lord never tires of forgiving.” When then his Holy Spirit comes to dwell in our hearts, what is natural to the Spirit can become second nature to us.
That is one reason, I suggest, why so natural a sign as breathing accompanied the Holy Spirit when Jesus gave the Apostles the power to forgive sins. Forgiveness may sometimes seem even unnatural to us, but it is natural to a community formed by the Holy Spirit, the only kind of community that can ultimately work in a sinful world.
Forgiveness is as fundamental to the life of the Church as breathing is to the life of the body. Without breath, the body dies. Without forgiveness the Church would die too, and so would die all our hope. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost guarantees the life of the Church, but also places the life of the Church in our hands. If we do not forgive one another, we die. But if we do forgive, God opens up a new life of possibilities before us, and the hope of a life with him that will never die.
Fr Simon Francis Gaine OP is the Regent of Studies at Blackfriars, Oxford.