The Solemn Feast of Pentecost – Year C
1st Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13 OR Romans 8:8-17
John 20:19-23 OR John 14:15-16, 23b-26
Today’s festival marks the anniversary of the Church as a publically proclaimed fellowship. Whether one calls it the Church’s birthday or IPO (stock market speak for “Initial Public Offering”), it is the narrative point at which the Gospel, while still fairly simple, began to be proclaimed with tremendous success. The Jewish festival of Pentecost was the occasion for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for diaspora Jews. It commemorated Moses receiving the Torah (the Law) at Mount Sinai nearly two months after the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. Recall that according to the Exodus narrative, Moses never saw God visually, but rather either witnessed theophanic imagery (the burning bush, a pillar of fire, or a pillar of cloud) or he went into God’s presence by entering the cloud that shrouded Mount Sinai and, later, the Tabernacle Tent. God’s Spirit was the dynamic force, the sense of power and might, Moses engaged in all these settings. That Spirit made Moses, and, by extension, the others whom he designated his assistants, sufficiently wise and capable of leading the Chosen People. Pentecost (the word means 50 days) focused on the Spirit of God as provider of the Torah. The Pentecostal audio-visual imagery of tongues of fire and the sound of a driving wind parallel the audio-visuals in Exodus 19, a text possibly used at the Vigil Mass last evening. Moses, ever since his first encounter with God at the burning bush theophany, had been emboldened sufficiently to confront Pharaoh. The apostles and disciples in the Pentecost Event likewise became genuinely “enthusiastic,” i.e., full of God. They were inspired to engage the whole world! They began in terms simple enough, i.e., by preaching first to the “devout Jews (i.e., their own people) from every nation.”
If that apostolic Pentecost marked the first day of enthusiastic evangelization, then we might ask, What happened to the dynamism, the insight, the wisdom, the exuberance and the witness-giving which typified life in the Spirit in that first generation according to Acts? According to Acts, “some 3,000 were baptized” on the occasion of the earliest Gospel proclamation. What effective preaching that must have been! Within a few decades, that preaching and the example of Gospel fellowship had begun to appeal to Gentiles even more effectively that to Jews. By the era of the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD), the Church was decreasingly Jewish and increasingly Gentile. By the end of the 1st Christian Century, the Church had no preponderant ethno-cultural basis, but rather had become ethnically pluralistic. Particular Churches in various locations evolved over time. In 313 AD a tremendous milestone was passed when Christianity became officially tolerated in the Roman Empire by decree of the Emperor Constantine who himself became a catechumen. Because he had a personal preference for the faith (at least in his perception of it as a powerful tool by which to govern his empire) Christianity effectively became the official Roman religion. Merely a dozen years later, in 325 AD, the emperor himself presided over the first ecumenical council at Nicaea. Today, liturgical vestments and other imperial trappings are still visible in Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican liturgical and governance practices. Freedom to legally embrace the Gospel was a blessing, but also a burden. With the Church’s rapid growth and increased numbers, the intimacy and personal relationships of Gospel life changed, as is the nature of large corporations. The rise of that corporate ecclesiastical nature and the scale of the institution trumped the close familiarity of parochial, domestic, dynamic fellowship. The institutional Church evolved into what we have today. However, our faith claims that the very same Holy Spirit of God who as was at Mount Sinai and at the apostolic Pentecost is still with and among us. It is to most believers most clearly active in the parish setting. The question is, How to we receive and live in that Spirit today?
That question even arose among the earliest of Christians as today’s options for second reading demonstrate. “To each individual” the Spirit has been given wrote Paul in the first option for today’s second reading. But, one could ignore the Spirit and continue without making a difference. Or one could allow the divine Spirit to inspire, engage and make her or him enthusiastic for life in daily social terms! In Paul’s text from Romans we must remember that there was an ancient presumption that all which was physical or material was prone to corruption and decay, while whatever was spiritual was considered eternal and heavenly. In that bias, which we have toned down greatly in modern theological perception, Paul was emphasizing the necessity of paying attention to the spiritual and the holy, to those insights which came with the awareness that God is indeed with us! In fact, even the corrupt flesh of one’s own person engages in holiness because of the real indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit. After all, it is through one’s body that each is able to act out the faith and the intimacy we claim to have with God through Baptism. Fear is a sign of no faith, or weak or immature or unhealthy faith. Hope, wisdom and confidence are signs of embracing the faith responsibly and in healthy, adult fashion. There is life in hope!
In an unusual manner, the lectionary offers the homilist today a choice of Gospel texts, both from John. The first option is the text that was used (with a fuller text) on the Second Sunday of Easter, and it recounts the post-Resurrection appearance to the disciples on Easter night. The focus of that encounter was a conferral of God’s Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ uttered some memorable remarks. First, he bestowed onto them his peace, even after having been made to suffer abuse and death unjustly. Secondly, he bestowed “the Holy Spirit.” This pneumatic gift came with an implied imperative task, i.e., to forgive sin. From the perspective of this Gospel narrative, the entire Easter season was a Pentecostal Era of bestowing God’s Spirit. From Easter Sunday night to Pentecost itself, the divine advocate was being poured out onto those who believed in the Gospel. Faith in the Gospel (i.e., the good news of God’s kingdom) opened the believer to the power, workings and peace of God’s Holy Spirit. It was not merely an important status to be “in the Spirit.” It was a way of life, to be conscious of and conscientious in the power and presence of God. The Spirit’s presence bore fruit (see Galatians 5:21-22). The second Gospel option today is excerpted from the lengthy and intimate session between Jesus and his disciples at the conclusion of the Last Supper. In spite of their failure to appreciate the proximity of his passion and death, Jesus reiterated many of the teachings he had imparted to them along the way to Jerusalem. He made a clear and necessary connection among loving him, keeping God’s word and receiving the dynamic presence of God’s Holy Spirit. One received God’s Spirit only if one loved. Without love, any claim to be alive in the Spirit rang falsely.
Christian believers sometimes divide up human history into three eras. The first was the era Before Moses, and it was called the Age of Lawlessness, i.e., the Age before (without) the Torah or Law of Moses. The second era was the Age of the Law, the Torah. The Torah was God’s gift through Moses which guided the Israelites’ behavior towards holiness. The third era began with the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and since his coming we live in the Age of the Spirit. Today is the memorial of the bestowal of God’s Holy Spirit upon believers who embraced the Gospel which replaced the Torah. It is the age of inspiration, of hope, of witnessing to the goodness, love, life and wisdom of the Gospel. It is our age! Receive the Holy Spirit!!
Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen! Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your divine love! Alleluia! Alleluia!!