Kenneth D. Whitehead
From the May/Jun 2010 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
It is quite generally known that Christianity teaches that God, the Supreme Being, though One, is yet mysteriously three divine persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The fact of this Christian teaching is known but, in an era of skepticism and religious illiteracy, is not believed to have much point or relevance. In the theology of the Fathers of the Church, the divine Son took on our flesh as Jesus Christ in order to raise up our human nature to a point where it was capable of sharing in the divine nature. In the New Testament Jesus is further consistently shown as teaching that here are things which men must do themselves (in addition to what He has done for men in assuming their nature and what He is going to do for them in dying on the Cross) if they are ultimately going to be able and fit to live with God.
According to the New Testament, Jesus both taught and worked miracles for the many, but He spent the bulk of His time teaching and forming a group of specially chosen disciples, the Twelve Apostles. His intention clearly was that they would become carriers of His message: “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mk. 1:17). He even sent them out on a practice run to preach (Mt. 10:5-15, Mk. 6:7-13), but He seems to have intended that their real evangelizing mission as witnesses to His teaching and Resurrection would be carried out after His departure (cf. Mt. 28:19-20). It was for this reason, no doubt, that Jesus spent so much time trying to form these Twelve properly, even in the face of their often unpromising responses.
One of the most extensive accounts of what Jesus wanted to get across to His specially chosen Apostles is contained in chapters 13 to 16 of the Gospel according to John. Here Jesus lays out, with a wealth of illustration, exactly who He is and what He intends to do for those who believe in Him. And it is here that Jesus informs these immediate disciples of His, the Apostles, that He intends to ask the Father to send to them another Teacher besides himself (cf. Jn. 14:16). This Teacher—whom Jesus variously calls Counselor, Spirit of truth, and Holy Spirit—will teach the Apostles “all things” and bring to their “remembrance” all these things which Jesus has already taught them (cf. Jn. 14:26) and will be a “witness” to Him, Jesus, just as the Apostles themselves are to be witnesses to Him (Jn. 15:26-27). The Holy Spirit will come only when Jesus has departed (cf. Jn. 16:7), but this Spirit will then dwell “with” the Apostles and “in” them “forever” (Jn. 14:16-17).
We get more than a glimpse in all this of how God manifests Himself as a Trinity. The transcendent God appears only for a time incarnate in Jesus Christ but stays on in this world permanently through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
What is important to notice further, though, is that the Holy Spirit is not promised by Jesus to the world at large at this point but only to the Apostles in particular; the Spirit is to be their Teacher and Counselor and to confirm them in their task of being “fishers of men” for which Jesus has been grooming them from the beginning. The Spirit Jesus describes in these Gospel passages, in other words, is not some vague power or emanation which gives a feeling of peace or benevolence or well-being indiscriminately to all, but is a Spirit of truth given first of all to the Apostles to inspire and guide them in the concrete religious mission for which they have been selected by Jesus.
The promise of the Spirit to the Apostles is inseparable from their appointment by Jesus to their “office” of Apostle. Jesus names Apostles and assigns them a task; He also promises to have the Spirit sent; these two acts are related.
This is strikingly confirmed in St. John’s account of one of Jesus’ appearances to the Apostles after the Resurrection: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained'” (Jn. 20:22-23). Thus, in the same breath (no pun intended), Jesus links the gift of the Spirit to the Apostles with that very role of being judge and arbiter of the acts of His followers which in the Gospel according to Matthew (18:17) He earlier saw as being a function of “the Church.” The Apostles are assigned responsibility for carrying out this function of “the Church” at the same time that Jesus breathes the Spirit on them. Their “charismatic” role in the Church, in other words, is inextricably tied up with their “institutional” role. The Spirit will not operate apart from the Church, but through the Church—indeed, in the first instance, through the leaders of the Church.
The Descent of the Holy Spirit
Pentecost is well known as the day when the Holy Spirit earlier promised by Jesus actually came. This coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is not inconsistent with the fact that, after His Resurrection, Jesus had already “breathed” the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles (cf. Jn. 20:22). There is nothing to prevent God from sending His Spirit in particular ways for particular purposes (as the Church believes God does, in fact, in the various sacraments).
Jesus had said, after all, that the Spirit would not come until He went away (cf. Jn. 16:7), meaning, perhaps, the fullness of the Spirit, when the Apostles would be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). What is clear, though, is that the Spirit was granted to the Apostles, the leaders of the Church, in a special way, through Jesus’ “breathing” on them prior to the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
This latter famous occurrence is described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).
What is interesting about this bare account is that it doesn’t clearly say exactly who “they” were who were “all together in one place” when the Holy Spirit descended. Was it the Apostles alone? Further on in the text, after a “multitude” was attracted to the sound and heard the speaking of tongues (Acts 2:6), the text informs us that “Peter, standing with the Eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them” (Acts 2:14). This suggests, along with the
fact that “they” were “sitting” in a “house” when the Spirit descended, and thus there wouldn’t have been room for too large a gathering, that the Spirit descended upon the Apostles alone. It was to them, after all, that the Spirit had been promised (cf. Jn. 14:16, 26, etc.).
However, a strong Christian tradition attests to the fact that at Pentecost the Spirit descended not upon the Apostles alone but upon the whole Church gathered together in prayer. This tradition has held that in some sense Pentecost constituted the day when the Church, born from the side of Christ on the Cross, first manifested herself as an active, living, sanctifying, and missionary body—an assembly or institution with recognized leaders in the Apostles indeed, but one in which each individual member also enjoyed the benefits of the Spirit, and, moreover, had a role and responsibility to help bring Christ to the world. This tradition is supported by earlier passages in the Acts of the Apostles indicating that, prior to the descent of the Spirit, there certainly were other followers of Jesus besides the Apostles, followers who “accompanied [them] during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among [them]” (Acts 1:21).
It is also recorded in Acts that, again prior to the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles were joined in their regular devotions and prayers to the departed Jesus by “the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus and . . . his brethren” (Acts 1:14). The company of persons following Peter and the other Apostles amounted to “in all about a hundred and twenty” (Acts 1:15). The tradition that at Pentecost the Spirit descended upon this entire community in prayer is thus very fitting. The Church was, after all, destined to be a Spirit-filled body also in all her members, not just in her leaders.
The preeminence of the Apostles as the leaders in the Church had in any case already been unshakably established by Jesus’ prior “breathing” on them; this authority therefore didn’t have to be ratified at Pentecost. The authority and preeminence of the Apostles was, in any case, quite evident at and after Pentecost; the most salient result of Pentecost, in fact, was that the Apostles promptly began to carry out the task which Christ had assigned
them. The role of authority and leadership given to them by Christ became functional. They began to proclaim the “good news” of our redemption in Jesus Christ (“Gospel,” Greek “evangelium,” means “good news”). Under their leadership, the community they had been empowered to form and lead became the kind of living entity which Christ had envisaged. In other words, “the Church,” as a living, functioning body with “head” and “members”—the body of Christ—was effectively launched on Pentecost, as the Christian tradition has testified—a new kind of human community in which the Spirit of God was present.
From the February and March 1980 issues of Lay Witness.
Kenneth D. Whitehead is the author of The Pope, the Council, and the Mass (with James Likoudis), The New Ecumenism: How the Catholic Church After Vatican II Took Over the Leadership of the World Ecumenical Movement, and numerous other books and articles. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith.