I read the story of Pentecost in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and I think back to my Confirmation in eighth grade. I read about the Apostles and their amazing response to the Holy Spirit. They were given the gift of courage to boldly proclaim the Gospel and they were given the gift of language so that the Gospel could be proclaimed to the Gentiles. I sometimes wonder why I did not have a similar response to the outpouring of the Spirit at my Confirmation.
Do not get me wrong. My Confirmation was a nice event; however, I cannot honestly say that I felt any different immediately before and immediately after I the bishop anointed with the chrism oil. I suspect that there are others who are reading this post who can relate to what I am saying. What is the difference between me (and those of you who had similar experiences at Confirmation) and the Apostles? At first blush, this sounds like a crazy comparison. Who am I to compare myself with Peter, or James, or John? But when you go deeper, you realize that these men were extraordinarily ordinary men before they met Jesus. They were fishermen; there were not theologians. Remember Peter's words during his first encounter with Jesus, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Luke 5:8.
So what is the difference between the Apostles on Pentecost and most of us on our Confirmation? I think the answer is a genuine personal encounter whereby we enter into a relationship with Jesus and truly accept Him as Lord of our lives. Truth be told, there was probably not much of a difference spiritually between us and the Apostles prior to their first encounter with the Lord. But once they met Jesus, their lives changed radically. Jesus became the center of their lives. He was their friend, teacher, mentor, and spiritual adviser. But as their faith matured, they came to realize who Jesus really was, and this changed everything for them.
Fast forward to Pentecost. Although the Apostles had a personal and physical encounter with the Lord, it did not prevent them from fleeing when Jesus was arrested and put to death. In today's Gospel, we hear the story of Jesus' first appearance to the Eleven after his death. We are told that "the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews." They were afraid that they might be the next ones to face the cross. They already had heard strange news that Jesus was missing from the tomb and that Mary Magdalene had encountered the risen Jesus. I suspect that the Apostles might have had some trepidation about encountering Jesus given that all of them, except for John, had abandoned Jesus. When Jesus appears, he tells them, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." John 20:21. So that is the end of the story, right? The Apostles immediately left the upper room and started proclaiming the Gospel? Not exactly.
The Book of Acts opens with a promise of the Spirit. Jesus tells his disciples to remain in Jerusalem and wait for "the promise of the Father" which would involve being "baptized with the Holy Spirit." Acts 1:4-5. After this, Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father. At this point, can you imagine the sense of anticipation that the disciples had? What was this baptism by the Holy Spirit, and what would it involve? One thing is not in doubt. Their faith in Jesus at this point was real! But it was still internal, in the sense that it was shared only with their community of fellow believers. Enter the Holy Spirit on Pentecost! We all are familiar with the story.
So why don't we see dramatic experiences after the Sacrament of Confirmation? What is the real difference between us and the Apostles? First, they had a huge advantage. Jesus was not just someone they had read or heard about. They knew him. They heard his voice. They saw him raise three people from the dead, calm the storm, walk on water, and heal the blind and the lame. They personally witnessed His resurrection! During Jesus' earthly ministry, He was the center of their lives. Moreover, they had a keen awareness after their first encounter with the risen Jesus that they were being sent on a mission. At that point, they did not know the scope of the mission or how they would accomplish it. They were promised the Holy Spirit and were eagerly waiting with anticipation.
From my own experience, the Sacrament of Confirmation was not as real to me because I was not predisposed to the gift that was being bestowed upon me. Although I went to Mass and attended Catholic grammar school, Jesus was not the center of my life. Other than Sunday Mass, I am not sure that I honestly thought about Jesus. I did not regularly pray on my own and I certainly upheld the unwritten Catholic tradition of "Thou shall not open thy own Bible." In short, I was not a disciple. I was not living my faith on a daily and hourly basis. Is there any surprise that I did not feel different after being confirmed? Not in the least.
Through the sheer grace of God, something happened. Something triggered an awakening. That little tongue of fire that had been bestowed on me at Confirmation, which had died down to a faint ember, was stirred to life. I started to pray and follow the daily Mass readings. I started to study my faith. At one point, I was given an opportunity to make a commitment prayer. The prayer was something similar to this:
Lord God, Please forgive me for all the things I have done wrong. I turn to you and turn away from sin. Jesus, please be the center of my life. I welcome you personally as Lord and Savior of my life. I ask you, Holy Spirit, to fill me and empower me to live as a son or a daughter of God. I want to have your grace to truly live a new life. Thank you for hearing my prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Something changed in me after I made this sincere declaration. I came to a new understanding of what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. A personal encounter with the risen Christ does not mean one hour a week on Sunday. It is so much more. My experience at Mass, and my overall faith-life experience when from a world of black and white, to a world of vivid color. What does it mean to make Jesus Lord of your life? It means conforming your life to the will of Jesus and seeing the world through the eyes of Christ. It means putting others first. It means making yourself docile to the Spirit so that you can accomplish the mission. It is a new understanding that when we allow the Spirit to work through us, we become instruments of Jesus. We become his hands and feet. In short, you better understand the Great Commission: "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." Matt. 28:19-20.
Oddly enough, there is no way I would have been writing this blog post prior to me making an act of faith in response to the gift of the Holy Spirit. If you have been confirmed, you have been given the same gift that was given to me. Think about the prayer above. Are you there yet? Be honest. The beautiful thing about the Holy Spirit is that it never leaves you. It just awaits a genuine and sincere response from each of us. To paraphrase St. Paul, no one can make Jesus the center of their lives without the Holy Spirit. 1 Cor. 12:3. I was confirmed in eighth grade, but I did not experience my own Pentecost until my late forties. How about you?
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, through Christ Our Lord,