In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
—John 1:1, 4
After the crucifixion of Jesus, Scripture tells us that the disciples were in the Upper Room and the doors were locked “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19). Considering all that had just transpired— the nighttime arrest of Jesus, his trial, the beatings, and violent crucifixion—it is no wonder the disciples were afraid. A man they knew to be innocent had just been slain, and for all they knew, they were next. The atmosphere of the Upper Room was one of tense apprehension, grief, and fear.
It was in that setting that Jesus suddenly appeared in his risen state and twice said to them “Peace be with you” (John 20:19, 21). Imagine their surprise, their relief, their confusion, and their joy at that moment. They could scarcely believe their eyes. The friend and teacher, the same one who had led them in prayer in that room only nights ago, had been crucified. They had no doubt of his death. And suddenly, he was there, among them, reassuring them with his peace. He showed them his hands and his side. And he “breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’” (John 20:22–23).
St. John Paul II writes, regarding that text: “All the details of this key-text of John’s Gospel have their own eloquence, especially if we read them in reference to the words spoken in the same Upper Room at the beginning of the Paschal events.” He had to be referring to Jesus’s prediction of his sending the Advocate. I am sure they had no idea what Jesus meant when he said, “When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me” (John 15:26).
This is our first introduction to the Holy Spirit, or the Advocate. Jesus breathes on them and through his breath—further proof that he is the Risen Lord—they receive the Holy Spirit. “With those words of Jesus the Holy Spirit is revealed and at the same time made present as the Love that works in the depths of the Paschal Mystery, as the source of the salvific power of the Cross of Christ, and as the gift of new and eternal life.”
There are two accounts of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit. John 20, the text we are reflecting upon in this chapter, is often referred to as the Johannine Pentecost. In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit comes on Easter Sunday night. By depicting the coming of the Holy Spirit so close to his death and resurrection, John emphasizes that the dying, rising, and sending of the Holy Spirit are actually seen as one single mystery, all part of one whole. It is one Paschal (or Easter) Mystery.
By contrast, in the second account of Pentecost found in Acts 1:1–13, Luke describes the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter— hence Pentecost, a word which derives from the Greek word meaning fifty.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis is clear about the role of the Holy Spirit, a role displayed in the Upper Room on that first Easter night. He writes:
Yet there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, renouncing the attempt to plan and control everything to the last detail, and instead letting him enlighten, guide and direct us, leading us wherever he wills. The Holy Spirit knows well what is needed in every time and place. This is what it means to be mysteriously fruitful!
The Holy Spirit, the permanent gift of Easter, is another lasting gift of that Upper Room!
Receiving the Holy Spirit in Your Upper Room
In the Catechism we read, “By his Death and his Resurrection, Jesus is constituted in glory as Lord and Christ (cf. Acts 2:36). From his fullness, he poured out the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the Church” (CCC 746). And a little later in the text, “The Holy Spirit, whom Christ the head pours out on his members, builds, animates, and sanctifies the Church. She is the sacrament of the Holy Trinity’s communion with men” (CCC 747).
Consider for a moment what it must have been like when the Lord first appeared to the apostles after the Resurrection in that Upper Room. They were not expecting to see Jesus when he appeared and breathed on them. How do we experience the unexpected presence of Christ in our own lives? How do we respond to “brushes” with the Holy Spirit?
Recall the experience of your own confirmation, when the gifts of the Holy Spirit you received at baptism were strengthened and enriched with a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit. How have you experienced those gifts in your life since that time? For sure, you want those gifts to be renewed in your life! And so we pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit in our lives:
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.
Excerpted from Meeting God in the Upper Room: Three Moments to Change Your Life, by Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi.
Monsignor Peter J. Vaghi is pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, and a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington. He received seminary and theological training at the Pontifical North American College and Gregorian University, both in Rome. Msgr. Vaghi was designated “Prelate of Honor” by St. John Paul II in 1995, and has served since 1987 as chaplain of the John Carroll Society, a group of professional men and women in service of the Archbishop of Washington. He is the author of Encountering Jesus in Word, Sacraments, and Works of Charity as well as the Pillars of Faith series. He has also written articles for America, Priest, and Our Sunday Visitor and contributed to two collections of writings on priestly spirituality: Behold Your Mother and Born of the Eucharist.