Sunday, May 23, 2021

Pentecost Sunday


Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021
Acts 2:1-11
Galatians 5:16-25
John 15:26-27; 16:12-15

Yesterday, I attended the ordination of two new priests. At the center of the ordination rite is the ancient ritual of the “laying on of hands.” Silently, the Bishop lays his hands on the head of each one to be ordained. Then, the other priests present symbolically join in and also lay their hands one by one on those to be ordained. This "laying on of hands” is an ancient gesture. We find it in the Acts of the Apostles, and in his letter to Timothy Saint Paul refers to having himself done it to Timothy. It is done globally to the whole group at Confirmation, and it occurs in every Mass at the Eucharistic Prayer. It is a symbolic gesture which signifies the Church’s prayer for the Holy Spirit to come down upon those being confirmed or ordained or at Mass on the bread and wine to be consecrated. It is a very solemn and powerful gesture, the importance and significance of which is inherently evident, just from seeing it.

That is how the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are ritualized in the Church’s sacraments. But, at the very beginning of the Church's history, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit were even more dramatically on display, when suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind and there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And the 120 disciples gathered in that Jerusalem Upper Room were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Many of us perhaps hardly ever think or talk about the Holy Spirit at all, and if we do we may often imagine him as a bird. A strong driving wind and tongues of fire may be a bit more exciting than the descent of a dove, but it may still seem somewhat elusive as an image of who the Holy Spirit is. God is, by definition, difficult to describe. Who the Holy Spirit is may be hard to pin down, but the great lesson of history is to learn who God is from what he does. And what he does at Pentecost is to kick-start the mission of the Church by getting it out of that Upper Room. As one modern Easter hymn, Michael Ward's In the Breaking of the Bread, recalls what happened that first Pentecost, “they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.”

In 1897 when Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, she was too frail to walk down the long aisle of London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral. So she remained in her carriage, while the Jubilee Thanksgiving Service was held outside, in front of the cathedral. That prompted a scowling comment from her cousin, the Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, complaining that the Gospel was being proclaimed out in the street – apparently forgetting (or ignoring) the fact that the street was where the Gospel had first been proclaimed!

Indeed, it was just as Jesus himself had promised: 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. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning. So, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church left that Upper Room, never to return. Instead “they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.”

And just who was there out in the street to tell? In Jerusalem that Pentecost, there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven. Pentecost (Shavuot), which our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated this past week, was one of the three annual pilgrimage festivals which brought many Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem from all over the world. So the second thing the Holy Spirit did was to breakdown barriers, beginning with the basic barrier of language. When the apostles spoke, each person in the crowd heard them speaking in his or her own language. To those who knew their Bible, the meaning was clear. The Holy Spirit was undoing the misfortune of there being multiple languages in the world, the damaging diversity of languages that had come about as a result of human beings’ sinful attempt to construct a tower at Babel [Genesis 11:1-9] to get them to heaven on their own. Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, however, the Church undoes this historical disunity of the human race, reuniting it in something new, the kingdom of God.

Artistic renditions of that first Pentecost (like the above photo from the Roman Missal) frequently focus on the 12, typically depicted as grouped in a circle around Mary, the Mother of the Church. In at least one famous mosaic, however, each of the 16 nationalities that are mentioned in the story (listed from east to west to add some geographical specificity to the idea of every nation under heaven) is represented by a pair of figures, thus representing the universality of the Church. The point of the Pentecost story is not - as it is sometimes misinterpreted to be - some celebration of society’s diversity. Rather, the point of the Pentecost story is the overcoming of the harmful consequences of the world's divisions in the Church’s unity and universality, which are among the accomplishments of the Holy Spirit.

Both before and after the Tower of Babel, of course, the damage done by human sinfulness had taken many destructive forms. In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul listed at least 15 of them. Too often, too many Christians seem at times to have gotten into the habit of singling out this or that individual vice for special opprobrium – as if the only sins that ever matter were, say, the sins against the sixth commandment - as if idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, etc., weren’t just as important. Earlier this month, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith felt it necessary to warn Americans about the error of misleadingly giving "the impression that abortion and euthanasia alone constitute the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest accountability on the part of Catholics." Again, what do we say (and do) about idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, factions, envy, etc.? Paul’s list is a long one, and we need to take it all to heart.

Thanks, however, to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, there is another list. Thanks to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the damage can be undone – in the lives of those guided by the Spirit, who live in the Spirit, and who follow the Spirit. In a world, which still seems to resemble the Tower of Babel more than the Kingdom of God, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit are also evident in the fruit of the Spirit – in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We need no precise picture of who the Holy Spirit is, when we witness what he does, when we witness – and live – the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

(Photo: Pentecost, Roman Missalcopyright 2011, Catholic Book Publishing Corp., NJ)

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