Pentecost Sunday: 6-4-17
Peace be with You,
Having celebrated the Resurrection of Christ over the last forty-nine days, we come now to the fiftieth day, Pentecost; a day on which we commemorate the fulfillment of the promise made by our Lord to his disciples, that at his request the Spirit of truth might come (John 14:16-17), not only into our midst, but into our very selves; so that we who were once estranged from our Creator might become the children of God (John 1:12-13). And, just as we need the constant care and attention of our earthly parents in order to grow to physical maturity, so the Spirit comes with gentle presence and tender voice so that our physical maturation might simultaneously be sanctified and bear the fruit of a new creation (2 Cor 5:17), channeling the Love which dwells within us to the world (John 4:14). To be sure, just as with any growing process, there will be setbacks. As we learn to walk we are sure to stumble, and as we learn to love we are sure to succumb to moments of self-interest. Yet, the Spirit’s presence remains with us, patiently guiding and correcting, at times whispering kind words of encouragement and at others sternly rebuking our self-absorbed ways, always with the aim of helping us become ever more perfect reflections of the love our God has for all He has spoken into being, so that every passing moment marks one step further down the road to perfect unity between Creator and the created, between the Father and his adopted daughters and sons.
In order to appreciate the significance of the momentous event which we celebrate today, it is necessary to have the proper perspective. In order to gain this vantage point it will be necessary to go back to the very beginning, i.e. to the creation of the world and more specifically to the creation of our first parents. Only in going back, mentally as it were, to the genesis of the human family, can we begin to appreciate the regenerative grace gifted to us today. For no remedy can be fully appreciated, nor will it be willingly, much less eagerly accepted, if the one who ails is not first made cognizant of their enfeebled state. Thus, let us embark on a journey of remembrance by attending to the revealed word of God speaking to us of our creation and the subsequent events taking place in our genealogical history that necessitated our recreation.
In Genesis one, we find the poetic hymn of creation. Through the text it is as though our Creator sings of the harmonious procession and order of creation in its intended form. We hear of light, sea, and land, all called forth into existence as if the Creator was announcing its presence to the void and taking pleasure in its echoing back the glory of their Creator (Ps. 19:1ff). Yet the Creator does not stop here, he goes on filling these various habitats with the living presence of various creatures, birds of the air, fish of the sea, and creatures upon the land appropriate to their realm; each creature contributing by virtue of its own unique nature to the cascading melody initiated by the God who speaks, “let there be…” Imagine our Creator, with the heart of a child at work in creation, contriving the most bizarre and wondrous creatures such that only the simple mind of a child would find pleasure in. And yet, after calling forth the diversity which the world presents to us, he is not yet satisfied, he has in mind one more movement which will make his opus complete. Thus, the Creator calls forth one unlike the rest, not compelled to sing to its Creator by instinct, but by love. And who is called in love to care for and enjoy the melody of creation with its Maker, for it, in its entirety, is the hymn of his loving presence.
It is this final creature whose lineage we descend from, the human person, impressed with the image of her Maker, making her capable of receiving the love through which she has been created and responding in kind through the gifts of reason and free will. She hears the voice of her loving Creator command her, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth,” (Gen 1:28). Hear our God say, care for all that I have given you, relay my love to them and teach them to dance to the melody of love which inheres within them. Imagine the world aglow with the presence of our God, every last living thing afire with His love and with every step trailed by streaks of the radiant presence of the Divine which animates their entire being! This is the world as it was intended to be!
Of course, we need not look outside the windows nor step outside the doors of our homes to realize that this is not the world as it is. Our every moment reminds us as John Henry Newman said, that we are “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity,” and that we are “out of joint with the purposes of our Creator” (Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Dover Publications, 158). We hear on our radios of, and see on countless screens evidence of our brokenness, yet in our pride refuse to acknowledge it saying, ‘I’m okay, you’re okay.’ And if we are content with the way things are; with rampant and festering division among the human family spurred on by pride and greed in their many manifestations from the home to the marketplace; we will continue to sing the same dirge and our God will not force us to do otherwise. He will continue to walk with us, training us to use our freedom for love; real love, not the false self-love which Augustine says would be better called hate (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.23). He cannot do otherwise, for it is who He is; He has done so through all of time, and he cannot change.
This Truth is precisely what shaped our first reading for today, penned by the author we know as Luke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, teaching him, just as Christ had promised (John 14:26), that he may in turn relay the message to us. The imagery used by Luke in recounting the events of Pentecost are meant to remind us of the work of God through salvation history. We might begin by examining the famed miracle of tongues. We are told that after the Holy Spirit had descended upon the twelve, they began to speak such that all who were present were able to understand them. In bewilderment those in the crowd ask, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappodocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:7b-13). Here we ought to notice three things.
First, the various nations mentioned make obvious to us that those who are present have been gathered from all parts of the world. Second, we ought to consider the source of confusion for the one asking the question. It is bewilderment at the hearing of a foreigner speaking presumably his own tongue (for we are not to understand that the 12 spoke multiple languages at once), yet intelligible, not only to him, but to all those who come from all over the world. In these first two factors we are meant to notice that what happened at Babel is being reversed. There, when the human family foolishly thought they might build a tower to reach the heavens of their own volition, God confused their language, forcing them to spread throughout the earth in accordance with the command given at creation (Gen. 11:1-9; cf. Gen. 1:28). Third, in a multilingual world, it was not uncommon for people to be conversant in a mutual language, for instance, Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the day. Yet, they hear the message spoken in a way they can understand intimately, in their native tongue; the language their mothers would have spoken to them since before they were even born.
What is quite remarkable here is that we meant to see the loving concern of our God for the human family, not only in this miracle, but in addition, retrospectively, in the event of Babel as well. For then, the human family lacked the ability to live out the command given to them, so cut off as they had become from the grace of God through sin. However, now, through the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of the Son and the giving of Holy Spirit, the human family has renewed access to the grace that enables them to live out the Law, which is summed up in the twofold love of God and neighbor; and thus able to live once again in harmony, not by their own striving, but through the Spirit of Love which dwells in and among them. This latter point is made more obvious when we consider that the Jewish celebration of Pentecost was a celebration of God’s giving of the Law through Moses at Sinai (Ex. 19). In fact, the imagery of mighty winds and tongues of fire used by Luke is meant to echo the imagery of that scene as presented in Exodus 19 and as commented on by the Jewish writer Philo (a contemporary of the NT authors), who describes angels carrying the message of God spoken to Moses on the mountain on tongues to the people below.
Yet, the Law as given on Sinai was but a first installment which would be fulfilled in Christ, who in his life and teaching would bring it to its perfection and by the sending of the Holy Spirit, would enable us in communion with him to do so as well. This is evidenced by the fact that in John’s version of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples (our gospel reading for today), we hear Jesus tell the disciples “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). See the magnanimity of our God! By bestowing upon his disciples the Spirit of Love, Christ gifts them with the power to heal the division which enfeebles the human family, with the power to channel his healing love to the world! This is not some symbolic gesture, for our Lord’s words are never empty, but accomplish their intended purpose (Isaiah 55:11), in other words, they create reality. To say otherwise would be to negate the words written in Genesis, or to say that the Incarnate Son is not the very same Word present with the Father at creation, and far be it from us to succumb to such foolishness after having received the Spirit of Wisdom (Eph. 1:17ff) which enables us to see with the eyes of faith the Truth revealed to us by the Spirit’s inspiration.
My friends, today we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift which has the power to renew not only our lives as individuals but the whole world. For this Spirit, present in the life of the Trinity at Creation, comes to make us new. At the moment of our creation, each and every single one of us is impressed with the Divine image, destining us for a life of love; yet to live such a life is only possible with the help of grace, and it is the Spirit who at our baptism ignites within us the flame of Divine Love by drawing us into the very life of our God! To be sure, there are very few who can unabatedly live this life of grace, for the multitude of us there will be experienced setbacks, shortcomings in sin. But the love of God has entrusted to his Bride, the Church, his healing gift of grace, so that for every failing there is a ready remedy! Hers is a remedy that cannot and need not be earned, simply accepted in thanksgiving, a Eucharistic disposition which the Spirit itself blesses us with in order that we might set the world ablaze with the fire of Divine Love; becoming agents of the restoration of primordial unity.
Come Holy Spirit, conform us to the most precious heart of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that with our lives we might sing the gospel to the glory of God the Father, Amen.
Your servant in Christ,