Fifty days. That’s only 14 percent of one year. One and three-quarters of a month. Just over one-half of a season like spring or summer. That’s how long the Easter season is. That’s how much time we have between Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, and Pentecost, when we are invited to receive a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
That’s not a lot of time. So it’s a good thing that we will spend the next fifty days reading through the Acts of the Apostles at Mass. Nowhere else in the Bible will we find a better description of all that the Holy Spirit can do. Nowhere else do we read so many stories of how the Spirit transformed and empowered ordinary people and sent them into the world as his ambassadors. So this Easter season, let’s take a look at some of these stories to learn how the Spirit worked—and how he can work in our hearts today!
Filled with the Spirit. St. Luke begins Acts with Jesus’ promise to his apostles: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8). The apostles may have thought they had all they needed. After all, they had spent three years learning his gospel and even doing their own missionary work. They had been privileged to see the risen Lord after Easter, and spent forty days with him afterward, learning more and more about the kingdom. And they had just spent nine days together, immersing themselves in prayer. What more could they possibly need?
The Holy Spirit, that’s what. Everything up to that point was good and helpful. But despite all they had seen and heard, they still needed the Spirit to come into their hearts and teach them, empower them, and lift them up.
And that’s exactly what happened on the day of Pentecost. Luke tells us that amidst the rushing wind and tongues of flame, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). By saying they were “filled,” Luke is telling us that the apostles experienced a powerful sense of God’s presence. They felt his love. They felt something that did not come from within them, but that was giving them a new understanding of God and a new desire to share his gospel.
Jesus has sent this same Holy Spirit to “fill” us so that we too could come to know God and find a new power to share his gospel. Every one of us can do the work of the Lord because we have the Spirit. So let’s ask him to raise us up and make us into shining witnesses of his love and power.
Surprised by the Spirit. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Peter knew that Jesus had come to bring salvation to the Jews. But what was the meaning of a troubling vision that he had while visiting some believers in Joppa (Acts 10:9-26)? In the vision, God commanded him to eat animals that Jews had always considered unclean, telling him: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (10:15). As Peter pondered the vision, three men arrived, sent by a Roman soldier named Cornelius. It seems that Cornelius himself had a vision, in which an angel told him to send for Peter. Urged by the Spirit, Peter went with them to Cornelius’ house, in spite of the fact that the Law of Moses prohibited Jews from associating with Gentiles.
As Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit—just as Peter was at Pentecost. Amazed, Peter declared: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” (Acts 10:47). So the gospel was not just for Jews after all! Jesus had come to save everyone. Taken by surprise, Peter put aside his own ideas of how God would work. And because of his openness to the Spirit, a new age dawned.
There will be times when the Spirit will surprise us. He may ask us to put aside a longstanding prejudice. He may propel us into a new outreach or ministry in our parish— something we least expected to do. We may find ourselves compelled to finally patch up a wounded relationship. Whatever the situation, we should all keep Peter’s response in mind. May we always be open to the Spirit’s surprises!
Directed by the Spirit. Saul of Tarsus was a devout Jew, a Pharisee who followed the law blamelessly (Philippians 3:6). He had witnessed, approvingly, the execution of Stephen and afterward launched a persecution against the church. But while on the way to Damascus, he was blinded by a heavenly light, and he realized he was actually persecuting Jesus (Acts 9:3). Just as Peter was led to accept Gentiles into the church, Saul (also called Paul) needed the Holy Spirit to show him that Jesus really was Israel’s Messiah.
But that was just the beginning for Paul. For the rest of his life, he learned how to yield to the Spirit so that he could accomplish “the work” God had in store for him (Acts 13:2). At one point, when he and his companions “tried to go into Bithynia,
. . . the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (16:7). We don’t know how that happened, but somehow Paul and the others sensed God’s leading and followed it.
As he did with Paul, the Holy Spirit wants to do more than fill us with his love and give us his joy. He wants to move us and direct us. God wants his Spirit to be a permanent gift, shaping our hearts and minds even as he guides our steps. He wants to lead us as we go into the world each day. He may show us how to share his love with someone at work. He may give us wisdom as we deal with a challenging situation in our family. He may even send us in a new direction, as he did with Paul, and open a new avenue of ministry for us.
Receive the Spirit. The Book of Acts shows us that God wants to fill us, surprise us, and even lead us day by day. But how does that happen? As we learn how to yield to his Spirit. So here are some simple steps we can all take that will help us sense the Spirit as he moves in our lives.
1. Quiet your heart. It sounds so simple, but in our media-saturated world, this can be a real challenge. Cell phones, televisions, tablet computers, and radio stations have made life easier for us. But they have also made life louder and more distracting. It is so important that we spend time every day disconnected from all these devices so that we can reconnect with the Lord. We need to create space in our lives—times of quiet, when we can fix our hearts on Jesus and begin to sense his Spirit.
2. Form your mind. What good is quieting our hearts if we don’t have anything to focus our attention on? That’s why it’s helpful to spend part of your quiet time filling your mind with the truths of God. You can contemplate the day’s Scripture readings from Mass. You can read part of the Catechism. You can study the life of a saint or the writings of a good spiritual guide. You can even sing hymns that speak of the Lord and his love. There are many options. Just make sure you are focusing on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just”—anything that teaches you about life in the kingdom of God (Philippians 4:8).
3. Write it down. Keep a journal of your times of prayer. Write down whatever you think may be coming from the Holy Spirit. Even if it sounds ordinary, even if it sounds silly, write it down. It may be just a feeling of love. It may be a new insight into a Scripture passage. It may be an idea about how to care for a friend. It doesn’t matter. Just get into the habit of recording your insights from the Spirit. That will help keep them fresh in your mind.
4. Keep it fresh. Try to find two or three opportunities each day when you can stop for a moment, quiet your heart, and sense the Spirit’s presence. Recall what you wrote down in your prayer journal earlier in the day. Do a quick review of the day so far and repent if something pricks your conscience. Or thank the Holy Spirit for helping you in a situation you faced. Get in the habit of listening. Develop a sensitive ear and a sensitive heart.
Get into the habit of recording your senses from the Spirit. That will help keep them fresh in your mind.
The Story Continues. The Book of Acts doesn’t recount all the “acts” of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit continues to work powerfully today. He is still transforming ordinary human beings into the likeness of Jesus. He is still bringing them together to build up the church. He is still empowering them to spread the gospel.
So try your best practice these four simple steps. It’s not hard to get into the habit, and the results are well worth the discipline. This kind of trial and error is exactly what the first believers did, and it bore marvelous fruit. Like them, you’ll find the Holy Spirit working wonders in your life.