Sunday, June 4, 2017


Seven weeks have passed since we celebrated the Lord’s resurrection. That may seem like a long time to us - living as we now live at a faster pace than people have ever tried to live before. But it is not really a long time by any traditional measure. From the accounts that have come down to us – in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles - one gets a sense of that original Easter season as a time of transition, as the focus perceptibly shifts from what Jesus has been doing to what the disciples are going to do. As we all know, it takes time – sometimes a lot of time – to get people properly prepared for a major undertaking. We typically allow not seven but ten weeks for a newly elected American President to staff his Administration in the transition from election to inauguration. Likewise the Risen Lord used the transitional time from Easter to Ascension to prepare his disciples for the task ahead, laying out his program, and getting them “on board” to implement it, eventually empowering them with the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Now, it’s Pentecost, and the implementation part begins in earnest.

That’s assuming, of course, that we even notice! Pentecost was once one of the greatest festivals of the Church year, on a par with Easter. Sixty years ago, it still had a week-long octave like Easter, and even had its own Saturday morning vigil (complete a blessing of baptismal water). At one time, Kings and Queens were expected to wear their crowns publicly on Pentecost. About all that’s left of all that now, in post-Christian Europe, is the 3-day Whitsun weekend. And here in the U.S., we don’t even have that.

Pentecost is Greek for the 50th day (in this case the 50th day after Passover). It started out as the second of the three pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish agricultural calendar. In time, it became a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, which occurred (according to Exodus) about seven weeks after Israel’s escape from Egypt. Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the giving of the commandments fulfilled the promise of nationhood, of which the exodus had been but the beginning; and Pentecost’s gift of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples into faith-filled witnesses testifying to the wider world.

The contemporary Easter hymn In the Breaking of the Bread tells the story of the Risen Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, which was our Gospel reading a few weeks ago on the 3rd Sunday of Easter. The third verse continues the story to Pentecost:

But then we became afraid without him,
In the darkened room we stayed without him,
Waiting for the One he said that he would send.
Then the Spirit of the Lord came down upon us,
Filling us, changing us, giving us the strength to say,
We saw him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened,
And we knew he was alive!

Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the Church,” since, as a result of having received the gift of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost following Jesus’ Ascension, the apostles began the Church’s mission of preaching the Gospel to the whole world. Pentecost and the Church are what fulfill and complete the promise of Easter and carry Easter into the world of day-to-day life and work.

In a famous mosaic in the dome of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, the 16 nationalities (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc.), who are mentioned in the story as having heard the Gospel preached in their native languages (thus undoing the damage done to the human community as a consequence of the Tower of Babel) are all represented in the scene, each by a male and female pair (an image of the universality of the Church).

For the Holy Spirit has not been given to us just so that we can feel good about ourselves, so that we can continue Christ’s presence among us in some purely private way (as if the Church were just a social club or some sort of inward-looking therapeutic community). On the contrary, the community which continues Christ’s life and work in the world must be as broad and wide as the world itself, which is why it must speak as many languages as there are to be heard in the world.

And so the hymn continues:

We ran out into the street to tell them,
Everyone that we could meet, to tell them,
“God has raised him up and we have seen the Lord!”
We took bread as he had done and then we
Blessed it, broke it, offered it. In the breaking of the bread,
We saw him!
Suddenly our eyes were opened,
And we knew he was alive!

The Pentecost story reminds us that, since apostolic times, Sunday has been the privileged day when the Church experiences in her liturgy the continued presence of the Risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is why our attendance at Sunday mass is such an essential requirement of Catholic life. But Pentecost is also an annual reminder of what happens every week with the transition from Sunday to Monday. In the calendar, Pentecost marks the annual transition from Easter time to Ordinary Time, our time, the time of the Church, when what began with the resurrection takes effect in our daily lives, and when those initiated into the Church at Easter finish looking back at that experience and become at last just ordinary Catholics. From our weekly Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent out to the world, as one body and one spirit in Christ, as the Risen Lord’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.

In that sense, Easter doesn’t end at Pentecost - any more than Mass ends with the Dismissal. We do indeed depart, but we do so changed and energized – sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.

And so the hymn concludes:

In the breaking of the bread,
He is here with us again.

And we know he is alive!

Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, June 4, 2017.

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