The crowning point of our paschal season of overwhelming joy has arrived! As we celebrate the great fiftieth day, Pentecost, we hear stories of amazement and wonder, diversity and unity, of mission and promise.
Today’s rousing recollection of the Pentecost event begins with the nascent community of disciples in Jerusalem as they struggle to come to terms with who they are after Jesus’s ascension. Luke makes a temporal connection of what transpires with the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), the harvest festival, the celebration of the first fruits. Developing Jewish tradition would come to ascribe to Shavuot the remembrance of the giving of the Torah (see Ex 19:16-19), an important narrative background to keep in mind. (Perhaps today this invocation of Jerusalem turns our minds to the ongoing strife in Israel and Palestine.)
Then comes the ruckus: God is causing a commotion among the struggling disciples. A dazzling theophany proclaims the all-embracing presencing of God: verbal, aural, oral, visual, kinesthetic. The Holy Spirit grasps their whole being. A crowd gathers as these tongue-like flames ignite the disciples’ tongues to proclaim the Good News of Jesus. With amazement and wonder, they each hear the disciples speaking in their own local languages. Bewildered, they wonder how can these Galileans known for their poor pronunciation now be telling the Good News in a way they understood? In this miracle of multilingual witness, they come to know that the Spirit’s powerful presence brings forth a word that challenges, an affirmation that God meets us wherever we find ourselves. God’s good news knows no boundaries and can be heard from those we least expect and in ways we may never have imagined.
Luke emphasizes this universal dimension by naming places of the known world in this period from east to west — from the rising of the sun to its setting — acknowledging the center of Rome, and including the islands and the desert. This miracle of speaking-listening-understanding crosses all boundaries. The Gospel is proclaimed not in the language of empire (Latin) but in the language of the peoples in a way they can understand. God draws near to us in and through our varied ways of living and expressing ourselves.
Unfortunately, our lectionary stops short of the crowd’s query in the next verse: “They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, “What does this mean?” But others said, scoffing, “They have had too much new wine” (Acts 2:12-13). Still, in 2021 we ask, what does the life, passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit — the paschal mystery — mean today? Do we scoff and dismiss the exhilaration of opening ourselves to the Spirit’s fiery presence?
Without missing a beat, we invoke a new Pentecost in the psalm: Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth! This joyful, hopeful plea resounds through the cacophony of airstrikes; the tears and anguish at the borderlands; the sighs of our ravaged creation; the pleas for racial justice and peace in our country; the gasps from the beds of those infected with the insidious COVID-19 virus.
Paul spells out the implications of being a Pentecost community: We are baptized in the Spirit. As one body, we have responsibilities to proclaim the good news in diverse words and deeds. Paul is clear: Our diversity is what makes us who we are, each working for the good of the other to build up the body. Our Eucharistic prayer underlines this new creation:
Grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son
and filled with his Holy Spirit,
may become one body, one spirit in Christ. (EP III)
To announce and live into being “one body, one spirit in Christ” is to denounce all that breaks us apart each day: from the daily grudges, jealousy, and judgments to the wider ways we extend discrimination and indifference in our words and deeds or what we fail to do.
We turn to the “Johannine Pentecost,” showing that the early church had various ways of narrating this gift of the Spirit. In the first option for the Gospel, we hear of the upper room with the disciples stunned by the events of the death of Christ and the reports of his resurrection. Hiding in fear, Jesus puts himself in their midst and with the breathing out of the Spirit advances the new creation in which the mercy and forgiveness of God take precedence. John’s gospel does not have a “last supper” narrative, but various meals and encounters with the Risen Christ. Here it is not “take, eat” or “take, drink,” but “receive the Holy Spirit.” Each time we come to the eucharistic table, that Pentecost moment is offered again to us as a sheer gift.
In the second option, some Johannine “paraclete sayings” are combined. Jesus prepares them for the fear of absence, adversity, and rejection. The Spirit is always with them. This spirit will “declare things to come.” As Raymond Brown explained long ago, this phrase is not about some “exact foreknowledge of the future,” but “consists in interpreting to each coming generation the contemporary significance of what Jesus has said and done” (Gospel According to John XIII-XXI [ABS 1970], 716. We are a community of prophets: not foretellers but truth-tellers, as the saying goes.
Pentecost celebrates our capacity to live with paschal joy each day, to breathe in communion, to act with mercy and love. Today we fan the Pentecost fire and ask that our hearts might be kindled — perhaps as cold as they have become — with this promise of a new horizon and a new way of relating. Fire is energy: this gift of the Spirit likewise energizes us to move out of our fear, complacency, anger, and anxiety to a newness of life and action. We have been baptized by water and the Holy Spirit. As Cyril of Jerusalem proclaimed to the neophytes in fourth-century Jerusalem, “For whatsoever the Holy Spirit has touched, is surely sanctified and changed (Mystagogical Catechesis 5:8). We who are sanctified and changed can let that wonder amazement move us out to proclaim the love and mercy of God in Christ through the Spirit in word and deed even in our stumbling ways. By the gift of the Spirit, we can with confidence tell the whole world, “Look what God is doing!”
Richard E. McCarron, PhD
Associate Professor of Liturgy