I was glad when they said to me: We will go to the house of the Lord. The musicians here may recognize those opening words of Psalm 122 as the beginning of Sir Hubert Parry’s great British coronation anthem.
This is no coronation, of course. But we are rejoicing today! Most of us haven’t been here, at least not together for Mass, in more than two months. So we are glad, all of us, to be back again in the house of the Lord! It is great to be back in church again, and I am thrilled to see so many of you again here today! Gathering here around the altar is at the heart of how we express who we are and become who we hope to be.
But, of course, the point of coming to church is that this then continues outside - in who we are and who we become, the Church we are and become, in and for the sake of the wider world. That is the point of Pentecost, the challenge of Pentecost, which we are celebrating in a special way this year not just by getting together again but by welcoming new members into the Church.
“Pentecost” is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day after Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the “week” of seven weeks that began with Passover. It originated as a kind of thanksgiving festival for the late spring, early summer harvest. It was to celebrate this festival that devout Jews from every nation under heaven came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, in the familiar Pentecost story in the Acts of the Apostles.
By then, Pentecost had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 commandments, which (according to Exodus) had happened just about seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the covenant at Mount Sinai fulfilled the promise of Israelite nationhood of which the exodus had been but the beginning.
Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from fearful followers of a now absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses empowered to transform the whole world.
In our current calendar, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time, the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when we reflect the resurrection’s promise in our ordinary lives. Gathered here, we worship the Risen Lord, seated at his Father’s right hand. From here, we continue Christ’s work in the world.
And there remains much work to be done. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit symbolically repaired the division of the human race, when strangers from every nation heard the apostles speaking in their own tongue. Even so, still today, as Pope Francis has reminded us, “fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other,” someone different from ourselves, and so deprives us “of an opportunity to encounter the Lord” [Homily, World Day of Migrants and Refugees, January 14, 2018]. We have all struggled these past months – and will continue to struggle for some time yet (as our seating arrangement reminds us) - with how fear (in this case the very sensible fear of a disease) can distance us – and, if we let it do so, separate us completely from one another. All this therapeutic distancing has also thrown a bright - but sad - light on the deeper distances that divide our society and so set us apart when we most need to come together as one.
Hence the Risen Lord’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit to his Church. Back when many of us were preparing for Confirmation, we memorized the gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. We call them gifts, because we don’t produce them on our own. They are given to us – to transform us into true children of God and to enable us to live in a new way. The results of that transformation, the visible effects we experience of the Holy Spirit active in our lives are what we call the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We memorized them too - charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.
That’s how the promise of the resurrection is fulfilled and expresses its effect in our ordinary lives. Pentecost ritualizes annually what happens weekly with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, filled with the Holy Spirit, to renew the face of the earth, as the Risen Christ’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.
Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 31, 2020.
(Photo: Pentecost, Roman Missal, copyright 2011 Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ)