Readings: Romans 4:13,16-18; Psalm 105; Luke 12:8-12
In today's gospel Jesus is particularly concerned with our speaking, what we say, how we say it, what we ought to say. Believers are called to speak about the Son of Man, and about the Spirit. If they are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities they are not to be anxious about how or what to say. The Holy Spirit will teach them in that very hour what they ought to say.
If we deny the Son of Man, we will ourselves be denied by him. We have taken up a position in relation to him which, we can say, he is ready to acknowledge. That seems bad enough but is not yet the most serious situation. If we sin against the Son of Man we can still be forgiven but if we blaspheme against the Holy Spirit we will not be forgiven. How are we to understand this when we are often re-assured that there is no sin too great to be forgiven?
Some years ago George Steiner wrote a very stimulating book called Real Presences. It's subtitle is 'Is there anything in what we say?' More than ever we are swamped and close to drowning in a flood of words that stream over us and around us every day. In all these millions of words spoken, written, broadcast, is there any depth, any meaning, any truth? We may be left confused, uncertain and tentative at the plethora of opinions, the mountains of information, the overwhelming extent of it all. We might take denying the Son of Man to mean this experience of confusion, uncertainty and scepticism: we deny the Word, that meaning and truth are to be found in it.
To deny the Holy Spirit would then signify taking a further step. It means not only are we unable to identify any meaning or truth in all that is flowing around us, we deny that there can be any meaning or truth-making significance in what is flowing around us. There is no breath sustaining all these words. There is no foundation in them on which to build anything. There is no significance that can be drawn out and admired through meditating on all these words. Perhaps it is the move from agnosticism to atheism.
In the face of this which is more likely, that we will be presumptuous or despairing? Presumption often seems more likely, as people assert, often quite dogmatically, that there is no deep meaning or truth to be found. We set the limits ourselves to the significance of our words and dismiss anybody who, in faith, proposes that a wiser heart calls us beyond those limits. Despair is deeper and darker and it brings conversation to an end: if people are consistent in their skepticism then no thought, no conversation, is possible. There is nothing in what we say, so say what you like or say nothing, it is all the same.
In this context, presumption and despair become two ways of saying the same thing: there is no final meaning in what we say or do. How we live, what we say, what we do: it does not really matter. And this is the sin against the Holy Spirit which cannot be forgiven because it does not allow space for a source of forgiveness, there is no place in which conversation can continue.
The Holy Spirit promised by Jesus and sent from the Father becomes the hope of believers. This hope rests on faith in God who, as Paul says in today's first reading, gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In his faith Abraham hoped against hope and so became the father of many nations. These were not just empty words, futile promises, but words filled with meaning and sustained by the Holy Spirit. George Steiner's argument is that the human conversation carries meaning and truth only where it remains open to transcendence. We can put it like this: where we seek to bear witness to the truth we must stand with the Son of Man, the Wisdom and Word of the Father, and the Holy Spirit will teach us what we ought to say.