My dear friends in Christ,
Today’s celebration of Pentecost marks the culmination of the Church’s celebration of the Easter Season. The celebration begun at the Easter Vigil now finds its completion in the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. It is appropriate to begin by asking why this is the case. The reason is twofold. First, the coming of the Holy Spirit marks the completion of Christ’s Passover, when the animating Love of God that once created all things now appears with new intensity by the very indwelling of His presence (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 731). Second, as the sending of the very life-giving power of God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning of a new creation, God making all things new through His Word and Spirit (Rev 21:5), in the form of a new People of God, the Church. Hence, Pentecost is traditionally seen as the birthday of the Church. And it is through this Church, now, that Christ’s work of salvation will be continued (CCC, 1076). When taken together, this twofold dynamic makes clear that the celebration of Pentecost marks a new stage in God’s work of re-creation or salvation, a work that He had been undertaking for millennia through His covenant with the Jewish People.
Luke masterfully makes this very clear in his account of the event of Passover in our first reading for today from The Acts of the Apostles. In order to see this it is extremely important to attend to the imagery he uses to describe the event. Before doing so, it is worth noting that by saying that Luke has chosen this imagery to describe the event does not mean that we are not dealing with an historical event. If it were not an historical event, it would hardly be worth commemorating, for it would be akin to commemorating a scene from a novel or a movie. Rather, in saying that Luke has intentionally chosen language and imagery to describe this event simply means that Luke has very carefully chosen language and imagery intended to manifest the deep theological meaning of the event, a meaning which has much to tell us of how we are called to live as members of the Church here and now. As we will see, in so doing, Luke weaves together a beautiful narrative tapestry by drawing together various threads of salvation history.
Luke begins by telling us that “when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). This one verse alone is pregnant with dramatic intent. We see this if we recall that throughout salvation history, the gathering of the human family, or their representatives into the People God has chosen as His own, in one place has gone one of two ways. Often, the gathering together of the human family results in disaster. We need get no further into the biblical text than the third chapter to see this.
Luke’s very next line even suggests that we ought to look at the very beginning to begin finding the connections he is making. The next verse reads, “and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). As we will see momentarily, this line has another meaning, but here there is little doubt that the wind filling the entire house hearkens back to the wind, or spirit, from God swept over the face of the waters, that is, over all the entire formless void that covered the face of the earth in Genesis 1:2. After having established in order (economia) an appropriate home for them (Gn. 2:4-6), God literally brings together Adam and Eve (Gn. 2:22). And thus, we have the birth of a human family, the Genesis of a People of God drawn out from the world itself, God having formed Adam from the dust of the earth and Eve from his side (Gn. 2:7 & 21-22). Adam, still living in happy communion with God, instantly recognizes the completion of the human family in this new diversity when God presents Eve to him: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” he exclaims (Gn. 2:23). Thus, from the very first we see the human family is one established by God in diverse unity, or a unity in diversity, and it is only in diversity that unity can take place. But alas, this happy union would not last. Shortly thereafter, the Serpent comes to tempt Eve, calling into question the one simple command that God had given them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn. 2:17).
One command, that’s all, a command that “was as easy to observe as it was simple to remember,” Augustine notes (City of God, 14.12). The purpose of this command, Augustine explains, to teach the human family that it was only in obedience to God, in right relationship with Him, that they as human persons could flourish (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 8.6,12), and hence the penalty of death that was promised would come upon its violation. In the great tragedy that attends the beginning of salvation history, Adam and Eve succumb to the Serpent’s temptation. “You will not die! You will be like God!” the Serpent promises Eve, showing himself a liar from the beginning (John 8:44). And so Eve and then Adam quite literally take the bait. In grasping for the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they decide that it is better for them to determine what’s right and wrong, not God. Far from finding themselves capable at self-deification, Adam and Eve Fall to the death God had promised, estranging themselves from Him, one another, and creation itself in the process, a reality revealed to them by God driving them out from the Garden of Eden (Gn. 3:23-24).
Yet, even in this sending out, God demonstrates that His purpose for the human family has not changed. After all, he had blessed the human family at the beginning saying: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn. 1:28). Thus, in sending them out God sends them out to fulfill the mission He had intended for the human family, to fill the earth and subdue it. However, throughout history, the human family would again congregate together. We are told that Cain, the first human murderer was the founder of the first city (Gn. 4:14), and just a few short chapters later, we come upon the next thread of salvation history Luke intentionally calls our attention to in his account of Pentecost.
In chapter 11 of Genesis, we find ourselves at Babel. And here we find the same dynamics at work that we saw play themselves out in Eden. However, first it is worth noting that, contrary to the command of God to fill the earth, the human family had taken it upon themselves to settle together “in the land of Shinar” (Gn. 11:2). We are told that then, the human family still had one language (Gn. 11:1). This made it easy for them to conspire with one another, and having ignored God’s command they set about making their own plans. And what do they come up with? “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gn. 11:4). Notice how far the human family has fallen from God at this point. It is as though they know they are to fill the earth, but they don’t want to, and who is standing in their way but God? Thus, they decide, like Adam and Eve, to take divinity by force by gathering themselves together in the heavens and thereby establishing their claim to rule in their own name. See here the perverse imitation of God taking place. God had once said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gn. 1:26), and here the people of Babel say, we don’t need God, “let us make…” (Gn. 11:3). However, just as it did in Eden, the attempt to seize divinity has disastrous results.
Notice please the beautiful symmetry here. We are told that the “Lord came down to see the city…” (Gn. 11:5), a clear echo of God appearing in the Garden of Eden at the time of the evening breeze in Genesis, just after the Fall of Adam and Eve (Gn. 3:8). Yet, there is one very significant difference, denoted by the words “came down.” In Genesis, God simply walked into Eden, but now He goes out of His way to deign Himself to make Himself present to them, descending to the level to which they had fallen, a clear figure of what was to take place in the Incarnation. Upon his arrival, God does not like what He sees, so He drives them out, once again, this time by confusing their language: “So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth” (Gn. 11:9). See once again how, even in exacting punishment, God continually compels the people to carry out the commands He gives. He scattered them thereby compelling them to fill the earth as He commanded at the beginning, and He confuses their language, suggesting that uniformity was never what He had in mind, but a great diversity in unity.
Having reviewed in detail two episodes where the gathering of the human family on their own volition has horribly disastrous results, we turn now to consider a few episodes where this goes right. The first place of note is the Ark of Noah. Without going into great detail, two things are worth noting. First, the calling of Noah is God’s response to the ongoing wickedness of the human family in the world, and His effort to provide them with a sort of reset by sending the flood (Gn. 6:5-8). Second, in providing this new start, God gathers all of creation around Noah, the great unity and diversity of the cosmos brought into congregation in the ark (Gn. 6:19-22), a clear allusion to the future Church as the Fathers of the Church were wont to see in their readings of the story (see, e.g., Augustine of Hippo, City of God, 15.26).
The imagery of Luke’s account of Pentecost provides us with the next scene from salvation history to attend to. In the third verse from chapter two of Acts, Luke writes: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, a tongue rested on each of them.” Here Luke shows his background to us, and in doing so, demonstrates the deep roots of the Christianity in Judaism. It is believed that Luke was what was known in the world of the New Testament as a “God-fearer” (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 268; cf. 322). God-fearers were gentiles who were deeply interested in Judaism, but for one reason or another refrained from converting to the faith. Such a person would have had an interest in learning about Judaism. Tradition holds that Luke was a learned person, a physician (Col. 4:14), and thus it makes sense that he would have been interested in the intellectual side of the religious tradition he was attracted to. This is made clear in the imagery he uses to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit, including the sound like the rush of a violent wind and the tongues of fire.
This imagery draws our attention to, well, Pentecost. The name Pentecost is not unique to Christianity, it is rather taken from the Jewish celebration of the same name. This of course has something important to tell us. In the Jewish tradition, Pentecost commemorates the giving of the Law at Sinai. After having liberated them from captivity in Egypt, God gathered together the people at Mount Sinai to provide them with the Law, and it was by living according to this Law that the People would live in covenantal communion with the God who called them out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom. Just prior to the giving of the Law to Moses, we find this description:
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled…Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently (Ex. 19:16 & 18).
Notice the paralleling imagery to Luke’s account in Acts: the loud noise, the smoke (indicative of fire), and the confusion that comes upon the people. The one detail notably missing is the tongues of fire. While we do not find this imagery in the scriptural account, we do find it in the Jewish tradition’s commentary on this event. In his work, The Decalogue, Philo of Alexandria describes the sound heard by the people at Sinai as a “new miraculous voice” having the shape of “flaming fire” “kept in flame by the power of God which breathed upon it” (9.33 & 35). Here we have, then, Luke’s image of the tongues of fire which denote the presence of the Spirit, the Breath of God. Philo then goes on to add that “from the midst of the fire that stretch from heaven there sounded forth to their utter amazement a voice, for the flame became articulate speech in the language familiar to the audience…” (The Decalogue, 11.46). Of course, Luke does the same thing, with two significant exceptions. The descent of the fire of the Holy Spirit does indeed result in verbal communication as it did at Sinai, but this time not from without and not in one language. Instead, it is the Apostles themselves who are animated to speak in diverse languages (Acts 2:4). See now, the whole world, as it were, gathered together by the Spirit in diverse unity: Jews gathered from every nation under heaven, together with Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs (Acts 2:5-11). What unites this diverse people? The Gospel! For what is proclaimed in these diverse tongues, to these diverse people, are “God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11).
The imagery of the diversity of tongues communicating one message suggests that God is now undoing what had taken place at Babel, what once had been scattered, the human family, is now being gathered together. And, moreover, He does so as prefigured in the scene at Babel, by coming down to us. Only by God’s coming down can we share in His life, whereas we saw when we grasp at divinity, we tumble further away from the God Who Is Life and from one another and chaos ensues. And how are we gathered together? By being called out by God. Just as God had once called the People of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to be His own people, now God calls the entire human family out of the slavery of sin to be His own people and thereby set creation right. The word ekklēsia, the Greek word used for the Church in the New Testament (cf. Mt. 16:18 & Eph. 1:22), carries the connotation of assembly, but its roots literally mean to be called out or to be invited (ek=out of/from & kaleo=call out/invite). This word itself denotes the recreative dynamic of salvation. Just as God once called out creation from nothingness by His Word, giving them life by the power of the Holy Spirit, so now, He calls out a people by the sending of the Spirit of His Word, Jesus Christ. Doing so for the explicit purpose of re-unifying the human family in all its wondrously magnificent diversity, as we are told in today’s Gospel where Jesus, breathing upon the Apostles the Holy Spirit (a textual problem for a different day), tells them: “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23). This is the work, now, of the Church, to work to overcome sin, whose main result is division between God and the human family, among the human family, and within the human person.
Notice please how in this that the calling out of the human family into a new unity in diversity is not a chaotic unity, for such unity could never really obtain. Rather, it is a unifying in the Law of God. This is precisely what the descent of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of the Apostles and us entails. For the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of what Jeremiah had foretold: “but this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33). Drawing these various strands of the tradition together, Thomas Aquinas describes the New Law as “the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ” (Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 106.1). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, in short, enables us to live out the Law of God because He is the Love of God that has been poured into our hearts (Rom. 5:5) by which we love both God and neighbor as the Law commands (Mt. 22:40 & Gal. 5:14). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, thus, enables us to live in communion with God because He is the very communion of the Triune God in Person.
This last consideration points to something very significant about the gathering of the human family in a unified diversity. The Church, as the Second Vatican Council taught, has been called out in history to be the sacrament of salvation in the world (Lumen Gentium, 1). What the Council Fathers had in mind was that as Sacrament, the Church makes the saving action of Christ present to the world, especially through Her sacramental economy, through which believers come into direct contact with the saving action of Christ (CCC, 1076). But we can also say that, because the Church is the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the Church is also the sacramental presence of the very life of God in history, and we see this most clearly in its unified diversity. For the God who this diverse and unified People make present, is Himself a Unity in Diversity, One God in Three Persons. Moreover, if we can put it this way speaking analogically, the Unity which is the Divine Diversity, only obtains by eternally living according to the Law of Love. What I mean is this, the very interior life of God lives according to Its own Law of Love, a Love by which the Three Persons give Themselves completely to one another, and it is that eternal exchange of Self-gift by which the Divine Life obtains. It is this interior Law of the Divine Life that we have been called to live as the People of God in history. Yes, by living according to the Ten Commandments, which in some way express this Divine Law, but beyond this, striving for the perfection of holiness through a life of Christian virtue. It is in living out this Law, and only by living out this Law, that the Divine Unity in Diversity is reflected in the unified diversity of the human family.
Only this Law can create a People of God, and therefore it is also this same Law which delimits the degree of diversity so as to maintain its unity (see, Pope Francis, Only Love Can Save Us, 84). Accordingly, it is this Law by which we judge what is an authentic expression of diversity within the unified Body of the human family, and what falls out of bounds and therefore out of communion with the unified diversity which is the Church. If we apply this Rule to today’s society, how do we fair? Does the diversity we express, the diversity promoted by today’s society reflect this Rule? Or, has it clearly moved outside its boundaries and into chaos? This Rule says Life is a gift, and therefore no to the Sartean notion that existence precedes essence, or, in other words, that we are to create ourselves. We see attempts at this in all sorts of ways today, from political bodies that seek to form themselves by carrying out violence on others to human bodies that seek to form themselves by carrying out violence upon themselves.
Today reminds us that true unity in diversity can only be received, not established by our own initiative, and it cannot survive by determining what is right and wrong for itself, it must rather live according to the Law of Love inscribed upon creation at the very beginning. Anything else, as Augustine says, is but the peace of a robber gang (City of God, 4.4), a peace that lasts only as long as the interests of the members of the group remain the same. See the global political scene for daily examples. True peace only obtains among a unified diversity, absolutely. This unified diversity will never be of our own making, but received as a Gift from God because it is His Gift of Love that makes it possible. Just as God has unceasingly sent out the human family throughout history to do His work, so today we are called out to be sent out on mission, to be His presence of a peaceful unified diversity in a horribly divided world, but with the strong reminder that this peace will only come by first gathering here together in one place and praying: Come, Holy Spirit!
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.