The Third Glorious Mystery: The Descent of the Holy Spirit

Anthony Zimmerman
June 9, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

In the Third Glorious Mystery, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, we pray with Mary and the disciples in the Upper Room for the coming of the Spirit upon ourselves and upon the Church. For it is the Spirit who enlightens our minds with faith and empowers us mightily with love, as He once did for the disciples on Pentecost Day.

This is a beautiful mystery because while praying it we can locate ourselves in the Upper Room where the 120 disciples were gathered with Mary for nine days praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit. When she prays with us, there is power in the prayer as well as charm and joy. And with her we pray for the entire Church gathered under her motherly eyes and look of concern for her children. As the Holy Father wrote:

If the rosary keeps pace with the speed of our lives, it can become a privileged instrument for building peace in the hearts of persons, in families, and among peoples... With Mary, we can obtain everything from her Son Jesus. Supported by Mary, we will not hesitate to devote ourselves generously to taking the proclamation of the Good News to the ends of the earth (Message for World Mission Sunday 2003, to be observed Oct. 19).

Jesus had given orders to the band of disciples "not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:4-5). He did not reveal "how many days" they must wait for the promise to be fulfilled, so day after day they waited and prayed: "All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers" (Acts 1:14).

Note that among the 120 disciples the "brothers" of Jesus were present too, the same ones who previously had not believed in Jesus. Who were these "brothers"? Today we would call them cousins. As Cardinal Ratzinger informs us: "We must remember that in Palestine at that time there was no such thing as the nuclear family... Instead, the more extended family lived together as a sort of clan. And that is where the reference to Jesus' brothers comes from" (God and the World, p. 234). When Joseph died it was Mary's turn to keep the clan together.

Mary had eminent virtues and charisma to be the matron of this family of relatives of Jesus. We give praise to these virtues when we recite the Litany to the Blessed Virgin: "Mother most pure, Mother most chaste, Mother most amiable, Mother most admirable" so who wouldn't want to live in her radiating presence. There must have been unbelief and jealousy and bickering and quarrels about Jesus during the three years of His public life when they found it hard to believe that their own brother was doing unbelievable things. And Jesus knew exactly how they felt: "And he said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country" Luke 4:24). Perhaps they joined the crowd at Nazareth that tried to throw Jesus over a cliff. But Mary was patient and kept motherly vigilance over them. Finally at least some of the "brothers" were converted, had faith in Jesus, and waited with Mary in the Upper Room for the coming of the Holy Spirit. One of them, James, would even become the Bishop of Jerusalem, and become a martyr.

What else did the waiting Church do during that novena, besides praying and besides electing Mathias to succeed Judas as an apostle? I like to think that they asked Mary to tell them more about Jesus, especially about the Annunciation, about Christmas, about the Flight into Egypt. Perhaps never again would there be a period of nine days when the young Church had this leisurely time to spend together with the Mother of Jesus, to ply her with questions, to watch her at prayer and pray with her as they awaited the promised gift of Pentecost.

One Sunday had passed after the Ascension, and the other had dawned. How long would Jesus make them wait? But this was the day when Jesus would keep His promise. They would need to wait no longer:

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).

The great event began with a "sound from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind." Think of a thunderstorm, or of a winter blizzard or even of a tornado when the wind slams with super-energy and deafening noise into your house. This Spirit that Jesus was sending upon the Church was not weak and insignificant. This Spirit was renewing the face of the earth to make it into a creation, re-modeled now on the message and life of Jesus. The rush of wind filled the whole house. This signifies that the old is being blown away and a new civilization of love is in the making. Not an inch of the house remained unaffected. Where the Church takes root and matures, the entire culture takes the form of a new civilization of love.

Then tongues as of fire appeared and settled upon each of them. Fire is not only warm, it is hot. The disciples burst into flames of Gospel truth, so much so that they needed to tell everyone about the works of Jesus. Peter's tongue would soon begin preaching, from the ninth hour of that morning until into the evening, while the rest of the disciples took the 3000 converts in hand to baptize them and register them into the Church.

The shape of lambent tongues of fire indicated that the language they spoke was first of all praise to the Lord. Jesus once said that if the children would not praise Him, then "the very stones would cry out" (Luke 19:40). It was Jesus now, inspiring the disciples to give praise to the Lord while bathed in the brilliant light of the Spirit and moved by His power and life.

Secondly the tongues of fire indicated that when the Apostles spoke, their words would not simply beat on the ear drums of the hearers, but would enter their minds with the light of faith, and their hearts with love for the Lord. With the words went spirit and power. Light of faith expands minds, and warmth of love transform hearts when people give a hearing to the words of the Gospel. This is true especially of the congregation that gathers at the parish church on Sundays and listens to the Gospel message given by their pastor from the pulpit or ambo. Even if the sermon is not eloquent or elegant, if the words spoken bear with them light and warmth, that is more than enough. Moses was not a great speaker and Aaron had to help by interpreting, but Moses led the people with power. Paul's speech was "of no account" according to his opponents, but when he did speak, the Spirit changed the listeners into a new and believing people. His simple words packed spiritual power. Jesus had explained to the Jews at Capharnaum that "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63).

The wind storm of Pentecost morning had not built up gradually as storms usually do. Rather, it burst upon the Upper Room of a sudden with sound and fury. It crashed as a full-bloom storm with a suddenness that was overwhelming. And the sound could be heard throughout the city. The disciples changed into a new people as suddenly as the storm shook the house to its foundations. To vent their new faith and joy they "began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." This miracle of tongues is a sign of the universality of the same faith among all nations.

The 120 believers who formed the core of the Church were now a universal Ecclesia, a community animated by the Holy Spirit, destined from that day and from that hour to build up a civilization of love around the globe. They unlocked the doors of the Upper Room and presented themselves before the surprised onlookers who heard them speaking in strange tongues, and each of them heard them also speaking their own native language. The New Church had opened the closed doors and emerged into the world. The doors would never be closed again.

From far and wide the people rushed together to learn what was happening. What they saw and heard was these men and women so intent upon praising the Lord that they appeared to be out of control. But in truth the Holy Spirit was totally in command and the spiritual tidal wave began to envelope the on-lookers as well. From heaven Jesus watched with joy as His Spirit took control of the Church. The newly-born Church was riding on the wings of the wind, and fountains of living water welled up from within the newly enlivened disciples.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?" (Acts 2:5-8).

Soon Peter stepped out in front and began to address the crowds. Gone was his one-time shyness when he had denied that He knew Jesus on the night of the Passion. He spoke now with power, not only with a commanding voice, but with the Spirit abiding in the flow of his oratory like a river of light.

But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved'" (Acts 2:14-21).

And before Peter stopped speaking, the people began to come forward to be baptized. Among them, surely, were some who had shouted not long ago: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Before the day was over, 3,000 were baptized. The Church was now unstoppable.

Peter and the Apostles did not build the Church with human power, but with the strength of the living God. Knots of Christians formed here and there in Judea, then Samaria, next Caesarea, then in more distant Antioch. Paul would spread the message in Asia Minor and Greece. Peter by-passed him and made the leap to Rome. Today, 2000 years later, the world knows that there is a Catholic Church, a Church to which Jesus gave the marching orders:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

When St. Leo the Great was Pope fifteen centuries ago he preached powerful sermons to the Roman congregation on the annual feast of Pentecost. In what is recorded as Sermon 75, he told, with moving rhetoric, how swiftly and effectively the Holy Spirit established the Church in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost Sunday. His Latin flows beautifully, though one could wish that he had made his sentences shorter:

Oh! how swift are the words of wisdom. and where God is the Master, how quickly is what is taught, learnt. No interpretation is required for understanding, no practice for acting, no time for studying, but the Spirit of Truth blowing where He wills, the languages peculiar to each nation become common property in the mouth of the Church. And therefore from that day the trumpet of the Gospel-preaching has sounded loud: from that day the showers of gracious gifts, the rivers of blessings, have watered every desert and all the dry land, since to renew the face of the earth the Spirit of God "moved over the waters," and to drive away the old darkness flashes of new light shone forth, when by the blaze of those busy tongues was kindled the LordŐs bright Word and fervent eloquence, in which to arouse the understanding, and to consume sin there lay both a capacity of enlightenment and a power of burning" (Sermo 75).

In the same Sermon Pope St. Leo explains that the fire and wind were not really the substance of the Holy Spirit, but symbols of the work He was doing "because human sight can no more perceive the Holy Ghost than it can the Father or the Son."

We close with the final words of that sermon, in which the great theologian of the Blessed Trinity explains how the three Divine Persons are One God equally:

And so whatever loyal hearts can conceive of the Father's eternal and unchangeable Glory, let them at the same time understand it of the Son and of the Holy Ghost without any separation or difference. For we confess this blessed Trinity to be One God for this reason, because in these three Persons there is no diversity either of substance, or of power, or of will, or of operation... Therefore, let us ... keep vigil with accustomed devotion, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who with the Father and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

We join Leo's congregation and repeat with them" "Amen." Thank God for Pentecost, thank God for the Church.