One of the great joys of reflecting on the feasts and seasons of the Church year is to see how they are all so deeply interconnected. We can’t really think about Christmas without thinking about Easter; nor can we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus without thinking about his Transfiguration, or experience Lent without experiencing Epiphany. It is, after all, all one story.
I say this because reading the Gospel readings assigned for Morning Prayer and Eucharist on this day before Christmas have got my thoughts focused on rather pentecostal themes.
It’s one of my go-to tropes to say that Luke and Acts are two volumes of the same book, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” Luke goes out of his way to highlight God’s renewed, active and creative presence in the lives of the faithful, and while this happens most universally at Pentecost, nowhere is it more prominent than in the story of the births of John and Jesus: Zechariah, Mary, Joseph (in Matthew’s telling), and the shepherds all receive angelic visitations that can only be called ‘Spirit-filled’, and Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon all prophesy through the Holy Spirit. And, of course, the conception of Jesus is itself a powerful act of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s stamp is all over this story.
What struck me this morning was the diversity of how that stamp is manifested. Zechariah sees the angel in the midst of his liturgical duties as a priest. Tradition tells us that Mary was busy at work sewing when Gabriel appeared to her. Joseph, like his namesake in Genesis, receives his visions in dreams. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit after the physical sensation of her unborn child leaping within her womb. And Elizabeth’s joy in turn led Mary to prophesy the beautiful words of the Magnificat. Simeon received no angelic visitation but simply obeyed an inner knowing that led him to the Temple, where he saw the long-awaited child, and was also inspired to prophesy. And the magi were led to Jesus through their study and pursuit of wisdom in the stars.
So, in the Christmas story, the Holy Spirit comes bearing gifts, not just for those who were directly involved, but for anyone and everyone who was watching with hope and expectation. But to each was given their own gift.
This reminds me of a saying I picked up from Wilkie Au and Noreen Canon-Au: that we are “Spirit-led in many ways.” The gifts of the Spirit manifest themselves in different ways in each of us. We won’t always experience the Holy Spirit the same way; nor can we expect everyone’s experience to mirror our own. To each is given what is appropriate for them, for the good of those around them.
As the apostle Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” He goes on to list all sorts of gifts of the Spirit before urging them, “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor 12.7, 31). He clarifies what he means in the next chapter:
As for prophecies, they will end; as for tongues, they will stop; as for knowledge, it will cease. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I grew up, I put an end to childish ways. … But now it is faith, hope, and love that last — these three things; and the greatest of these is love.
Tomorrow, as we open and share our gifts with one another, may we remember and give thanks for all that we have received, both at Christmas and all year round. To those to whom much is given, much is expected; our gifts and our lives and our love are not our own, but rather we are called to offer them for the life the world, following the example and cross of Jesus, whose coming we celebrate in this season. For the greatest of all these wonderful gifts of the Spirit this season is love.