Fr Kevin Hegarty
Last Tuesday two newly-born cygnets were noticed at the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset. The arrival of the first baby swan at the site of the former Benedictine Monastery is thought to herald the arrival of summer in a tradition stretching back centuries.
There are other signs that spring has finally shaded into summer. The daffodils have died, to be replaced by the bluebells, primroses and rhododendrons. Last weekend the weather was magnificent. The sun shone, not just brightly, but warmly, and May is the month of confirmations and first communions. Throughout the country there are processions of communion dresses, family buffets and barbeques and bouncing castles.
The Christian liturgical rota also recognises the arrival of summer. As Christmas and Easter are the highlights of winter and spring, Pentecost, which was celebrated last Sunday, defines the summer.
Pentecost celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and disciples of Jesus. After the ascension his followers were lonely and fearful. In the poignant words of the “Acts of the Apostles” they stayed staring into the sky for a long time afterwards. On the eve of Pentecost they were so afraid for their safety that they locked the doors of the place where they were staying.
The arrival of the Holy Spirit utterly transformed them. They were inspired and energised. It was an exciting, hope-filled time, a time when, in the words of Patrick Kavanegh, the Apostles’ Creed was a fireside story, the talk of the town.
The story of St Peter encapsulates the transformation. Peter was full of bravado and machismo. When Jesus told his apostles of his impending suffering and death, Peter flamboyantly told him he would be with him to the end.
With his acute psychological insight into human nature, Jesus knew Peter’s fragility and vulnerability. He told him plainly he would deny him three times.
So it proved in the aggressive atmosphere of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus, Peter lost his courage and denied he knew anything of the man he had followed so enthusiastically for three years.
After he experienced the Holy Spirit, Peter was fearless in his witness. In the end, he was able to face a similar fate to Jesus and earn the noble title of being a martyr for the truth.
Poets have a memorable was of capturing eternal and transcendental realities. The American poet, Emily Dickinson, (pictured) wrote words that can apply to Pentecost:
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.”
Gerald Manley Hopkins, priest and poet, majestically sensed how the Holy Spirit envelops our world:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is smeared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things:
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
For those of us who try to live the Christian story, Pentecost is not merely an historical event.
The road of life sometimes is a bright, clear highway. Everything seems to be alright. For all of us there are times when it becomes twisted, dark and festooned with scary obstacles. It is a fundamental tenet of our faith that the Holy Spirit can guide us through the maelstrom.
And for the Catholic Church in Ireland, possibly never more lost and broken in its long history, here as now, I hope that this year’s celebration of Pentecost can be a source of inspiration, courage and fortitude.