Bottom line: In the days of Robin Hood, lived a man who shows what can happen when a person opens himself to the power of the Holy Spirit.
Today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday - the culmination of the fifty days of Easter, the day when Jesus sent the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost is sometimes called the "birthday of the Church." To illustrate the importance of this day, I would like to begin with an anecdote.
Once an American had a visitor from England. He wanted to show his guest the marvels of our country, so he took him to Niagara Falls. From above they could appreciate the expanse of the Falls, as they looked from the U.S. to the Canadian side. Then they went below where the water made a deafening noise. The American explained about the enormous quantity of water and its great force. He had to practically shout into his friends ear as he concluded, "There is the greatest unused power in the world."*
The visitor was duly impressed; he had seen nothing like it in his own country. But then, like a good Englishman, he started to think a little deeper. "Yes," he said to his American host, "the power here is great, but there is something much greater. The greatest unused power in the world is the Holy Spirit of the Living God." The man has a point. Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost Sunday. This feast day reminds us of a power we have barely tapped into.
To illustrate what can happen when we tap into that power, I would like to tell you a different Englishman - who many years ago opened himself to the power of the Holy Spirit. His name was Stephen Langton. He lived in England in the days of Robin Hood. Like Robin Hood, he wanted to help the poor, but as a priest. Pope Innocent recognized Father Langton's talent and appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury. King John, however, feared Langton and exiled him to France. While in France, he composed a wonderful hymn to the Holy Spirit: "Come Holy Spirit…Father of the poor!…You, the best of comforters, You, the soul’s most welcome guest." This hymn is called the "Sequence" and we listened to it before today's Gospel.
If Langton had only written this one hymn, he would deserve remembrance. But he did something more. Up until the thirteenth century, no one had divided the Bible into chapters and verses. To enable more exact reference to the Scripture, Archbishop Langton undertook that project. Anytime someone mentions a Bible verse such as "John 3:16" or "First Corinthians 12:4" they are taking advantage of Langton’s great labor of love.
But there is more. When Stephen Langton returned from exile, he saw the King ruling in an arbitrary manner. To counteract the king's injustice, Archbishop Langton gathered the English barons at a place called Runnymede in June of 1215. He helped them write a document which lays out basic rights regarding taxation, due process and certain legal protections for the Church. They called their document the Great Charter, although we are more familiar with its Latin name - the Magna Carta. As every schoolchild knows, the Magna Carta was the embryo from which English democracy developed. In America – and many other countries – we owe Archbishop Stephen Langton a huge debt.
A beautiful hymn to the Holy Spirit, an important tool for studying the Bible and a document which launched the modern democratic experiment: Stephen Langton shows what a person can accomplish when imbued with Christian tradition – and open to power of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirt is the greatest untapped power in the world. In our readings today, we see some of things the Holy Spirit makes possible:
This Sunday God wants you and me to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit.** How our world would change if we allowed him to enter our hearts! In my years as a priest many people have told me that they wish their lives could be different. They would like to have more energy, more enthusiasm. They want interior tranquility and a sense of purpose. Those things come from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can energize us, give us a new life.
I can do no better this Sunday than conclude with Stephen Langton's hymn to the Holy Spirit. I won't read all the verses, but three stanzas that speak about that greatest untapped power:
O most blessed Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of thine,
And our inmost being fill!
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end. Amen. Alleluia.
*This anecdote goes back to the nineteenth century. Since the end of that century about ten percent of Niagara Falls has been harnessed to produce hydroelectric power.
**A survey of the "Millennial Generation" (1,200 18 to 29-year-olds) shows the need to connect with the Holy Spirit:
The problem with being "spiritual" (in opposition to being "religious") is that there are spirits and there are spirits. A person has to discern what "spirit" directs him. At our core, each of us is a spirit (an embodied soul) - but we are susceptible to the influence of evil spirits (demons). If a person desires that the Holy Spirit guide him, that requires prayer, reading of Bible and solid spiritual books, attendance at Mass, confession, spiritual direction, etc. As St. John says, "Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God." (1Jn 4:1)
From the Archives:
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
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