I think most of us remember when we learned to ride a bike. We might have gotten a bike with training wheels, and rode around with it until our parents thought we had enough balance to manage with just two wheels. I didn’t have training wheels, I had my cousin Cindy. I was six years old, and one of my relatives had given my folks an old girls’ bike for me. It was our tradition that we would get a bike for our First Communion, when we were seven, but I was impatient even back then. This was a full-sized bike with fat tires, and I was much shorter than I am today, but I was determined to learn how to ride this bike. My cousin Cindy would hold the back fender of my bike and run along side while I pedaled. I don’t know how many times we went around the block like that, but I remember the time I looked back and saw that Cindy had let go, and I was riding on my own. I was a little scared, but I was so happy. Something clicked inside me, and I could now ride a bike. There was no turning back after that.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. The first reading was from the very beginning of the book called the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles is an account of what happened in the early Church. The fact that the Ascension comes at the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Ascension marks the transition between Jesus’ ministry on earth and the experiences of the early Church.
Jesus spent his public life on earth teaching us about his Father and about how we should live. Throughout the gospels Jesus taught his disciples, so they could carry on his work after he was gone. He was a bit like my cousin Cindy. Cindy was so patient with me. She didn’t get discouraged when I lost my balance as I tried to master this new skill. She was there with a smile – “Let’s try again.” Jesus showed this same patience and persistence as his disciples struggled with his new and difficult teachings. They weren’t used to turning the other cheek. They couldn’t understand what it meant to become like little children. And so he walked with them – his hand on the back fender as they tried to find their balance.
His gentle and loving guidance didn’t end with his death and Resurrection. In the 40 days following the Resurrection, Jesus appeared often to his disciples. He continued to teach them – to prepare them to carry on his work, and to deal with the hardships that were ahead. He went out of his way to show them that he – the resurrected Christ – was still the human Christ. He ate with them – he invited them to put their hands in his wounds. But then, in the Ascension, Jesus completed his earthly teaching by showing that he was also God. Jesus’ body was taken from this world to be with his Father.
You know how they say once you learn how to ride a bike, you always remember: “It’s like riding a bike, you never forget.” That day when I looked back and saw that Cindy had let go and I was riding on my own, something clicked inside me – and I’ve never forgotten how to ride a bike. In the first reading, Jesus promised the apostles that something similar would happen to them after he left – after he took his hand off the back fender. He said: “…John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit… you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And the reading continues: “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The last thing Jesus told the apostles before he ascended into heaven was that the Holy Spirit would come to them. Through the Holy Spirit, all those teachings would fall into place – like that thing that clicked inside me when I realized that I knew how to ride a bike.
Last week I talked about how hard it is to get an idea in our heads of who or what the Holy Spirit is like. And I said that one way to get a sense of the Holy Spirit is to look at people who are spiritual. I mentioned Father Paul and Miss Ivy as examples of spiritual people. I think the Church must know how difficult it is to understand the Holy Spirit, because we have so many symbols of the Holy Spirit.
The dove is one symbol. We read in Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus: “…and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” The dove is a gentle creature. Today we see the dove as a symbol of purity and peace.
Oil is another symbol of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, oil was used to anoint priests and kings. It gave authority to act through the Spirit. When Jesus was teaching at the Synagogue in Nazareth, he said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” We use oil for Baptism and Confirmation to signify the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Another symbol is water. In John’s Gospel we read: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive.” And from Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you.”
Next Sunday, at Pentecost, we hear about wind, another symbol of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles were in the upper room: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” And in John’s gospel we hear: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
John the Baptist uses another symbol of the Holy Spirit – fire. He said: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I, is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” On Pentecost, we will hear again about this very powerful symbol. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
The Scriptures have given us many symbols to help us understand how the Holy Spirit works in our lives. To these, I would humbly add the bicycle. But these are only symbols: symbols that signify a larger truth.
The Holy Spirit is available to us. In the Gospel today Jesus said: “Remember, I am with you to the end of the age.” But we have to accept the Holy Spirit into our lives. Remember how I said that I was impatient to learn how to ride my bike. We have to have that same kind of hunger to receive the Holy Spirit – to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives.
I would like to close with the prayer of the Holy Spirit. I would like you to pray with me the way Miss Ivy prayed. Please raise your arms and your eyes toward heaven and say after me:
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, Amen.