For Christians Pentecost is the day the Spirit descended on Our Lady and the apostles in the upper room. Yet in John's Gospel it is clear that Jesus is already imparting the Spirit before that event. So how do we resolve this apparent contradiction?
The context for all Christian theology is the mystery of the unity of Father, Son and Spirit revealed by Jesus. We call this mystery the Holy Trinity. It is the most important article of our faith and the single truth which should guide us in all our reflections on the Gospel. In the light of this truth we can say with certainty that Jesus was indeed imparting the Spirit throughout his ministry.
Jesus said 'I and the Father are one'. In other words the Father is always united with Jesus because Jesus is his Word, his Son. In the same way the Spirit too is always united with the Son. So whenever Jesus spoke or acted he was also imparting the Holy Spirit. But if that is so, what is special about Pentecost?
One way to approach this question is to ask ourselves what Jesus was trying to do in his ministry on earth and what difference Pentecost made to this work. Jesus instructs his disciples to baptize all nations in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to obey his commandment to love each other. In other words Jesus was moulding his disciples into a community bound by particular values and nourished by the love of God at work in him.
St Augustine reminds us that a community is united by the things it loves, the values that its members share. When we look at our own society we can see that in many ways we have ceased to be a true community of people who share the same values. It might still be possible to find genuine pockets of community here and there but these days many people lead very private if not lonely lives motivated by largely individualistic values.
When things start to go wrong in the complex societies we inhabit it is tempting to think that instead of examining our values we should simply have fewer of them. And so we hear it said that the solution for a fragmented society is to encourage people to be less religious and less assertive of their particular cultural heritage. Secular society seems to be very confused about its values and even religious people are affected by this public confusion. Even some Christians express the quaint view that there is no such thing as objective truth.
Jesus provides us with the model of a true human community. There was certainly much confusion in his own society in which Jewish values had to compete with Greek, Roman and other values. His response to this turbulent and often violent world was to bring to light the essential character of the God who had never forsaken his chosen people. He could only do this with conviction because he is the Son of that same God, literally One with the Father and the Spirit.
The Father expressed his love for us by sending his Son into our world as a man so that it would be possible for us to participate in the very life of the Holy Trinity. In his brief life on earth there was only so much that the Son of God could do. But the Ascension of Jesus to heaven was the prelude to the coming of the Holy Spirit so that we might experience the full presence of the third person of the Trinity too. The advent of the Spirit meant that God would not only dwell with us but even within us, enabling us perfectly to follow the Son in all that he taught.
That is why Pentecost was necessary and that is why the Church, at its best, is that perfect community for which all human beings long. Communities are united by their common values but a perfect community requires the presence of the Holy Spirit in each one of us, binding us together in perfect love. That perfect community is certainly to be found in heaven but even here on earth we can help to build it by communicating the merciful love of God to our own society and to the whole world.