Acts 2:1-11; Galatians 5:16-25; John 15:26-27; 16:12-15
St Peter's Basilica in Rome stands like an island in the midst of the world. It is in the world but not part of the world - though it is open to the world. The two great colonnades forming the piazza are like two giant arms reaching into the world inviting all humanity to come to Christ in his Church. I like to imagine the Basilica itself as representing the Father who reaches out through the Son, the colonnades, while the Holy Spirit is that invisible force which powerfully continues to draw men and women of good will into the embrace of the Blessed Trinity.
The colonnades are curved inwards in a protective gesture signifying the salvation offered by Christ through his Church in her teaching and sacraments. The wide opening formed by the ends of the colonnades bears a double symbolism. It reminds us firstly that the Church calls all men and women, without exception, to Christ and secondly, that the call, the invitation, is directed at our individual human freedom. Unlike some religions, no one will be forced to stay.
The enormous piazza formed by these protective colonnades permit us also to imagine a sheepfold in which we, the sheep, live our daily lives in the motherly care of the Church. It is an image of great security. Here, in the ever present shadow of the house of God, we are nourished on the word of God and on his sacraments. Here the Holy Spirit forms us into true disciples and restores in us the likeness to the Master without which we could not enter heaven.
And how do we enter this sheepfold? The answer is clear; through Baptism.
Through baptism we are reborn but we are also, as it were, relocated. We are made new, regenerated in Christ through the sacrament and at the same time made members of his Church, enfolded by the mighty arms symbolised by those mighty columns around St Peter's Square.
But the story does not end here. If Baptism gives us a new life and a new dwelling, it gives us also a new calling. And we have heard this calling so often proclaimed in the liturgy over the last few weeks: Remain in me.
Remain in me. How relevant these words are today when so many are choosing to leave the Church and, as an unavoidable consequence, to abandon Christ who dwells there. Remain in me. How necessary and important to our salvation these words are. Anyone who does not remain in me .... withers.
In this context the magnificent colonnades framing the piazza take on added meaning. Not only do they clearly demarcate the boundaries of the sheepfold, of orthodoxy, of membership in the Church - they also speak to us of the utterly simple means of remaining within - and that is - obedience, or as Jesus puts it - keep my commandments.
Especially in these disobedient times, at the very time the people of Ireland are voting whether to put God's word aside or not, we should meditate deeply on these truths. The colonnades symbolise the limits we must not cross if we are to be part of the fold. They speak to us of God-given authority in the Church, her hierarchical structure, her ways of worship and her sacraments, her moral laws, Tradition and Scripture as well as the unalterable content of her Faith. All these things form a part of the conditions for the Church's greatest gift - communion with Christ - and therefore with one another. This is really what those colonnades point to - obedience to faith.
Which brings us back to the gift of the Holy Spirit whose coming we celebrate today. It was to the profound communion with God of Mary and the Apostles who had all met in one room that the Holy Spirit came. The Apostles immediately arose and, set free and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they began their life's work, preaching the gospel to all creation. Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:41).
Peter and the other Apostles were called to account for their preaching. They stood before the Sanhedrin who ordered them to preach no more. Their reply? We must obey God rather than human beings! (Jn 5:29)
There is that word again. Obey! Peter and the Apostles knew that obeying the Sanhedrin meant they could no longer consider themselves part of the flock of Christ. They well understood the betrayal which was being proposed to them and so instead they resumed their preaching right then and there - to the Sanhedrin.
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.
Did you hear that?
....the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.