THE BIRTHDAY OF THE CHURCH; THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT; THE FEAST OF PENTECOST

 

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Pentecost, RC Church of St. Aloysius, Somers Town, London, UK.

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/052018.cfm

And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.      Acts of the Apostles, 2:2-3.

50 days after Passover, our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate the feast of Shevuot, a Hebrew word meaning “weeks”. It has several other names, the Feast of Weeks being its current name. Seven weeks after Passover, or (roughly) 50 days, gave it its name. At that time, Greek (not yet Latin) being the universal language of the Roman Empire, they called it Pentecost (“50th”), based on the Greek word πέντε, pente, or five. Originally a Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, a great thanksgiving feast would be held in the Temple in Jerusalem, and all Jews who could afford it would come to the city to give thanks. Hence it is one of the three great Pilgrimage Feasts, the others being Passover and the Feast of Booths. Also, by tradition, it took 50 days from the passage through the waters escaping from the slavery of Egypt for the Hebrews to arrive at Mount Sinai where the 10 Commandments were given to them. Hence it is also called the Feast of the Law. So for Jerusalem this was one big day, with the city packed with pilgrims from all over.

Meanwhile, somewhere in that city 2000 years ago, you might have been able to find a bunch of people huddling behind locked doors, scared that they might be discovered, identified as followers of the messianic imposter Jesus and condemned to the same death he had suffered. The entire Christian church was located in one small room, hidden away from the crowds, scared to death. Prospects were grim, you might say.

Then something happened which was to change the whole world.

Literally out of the blue those cowards were confronted with a life-changing blast of wind/breath/Spirit; they heard a loud noise as of wind rushing through the room, and flames as of fire appeared. These flames separated and came to rest upon each person there. There was probably a stunned silence in the sudden peace as they stood terrified, confused, frozen. Then they began to talk, some in Aramaic, some in Greek, some in Hebrew, some in Latin and others in other tongues. The silence gave way to a cacophony of excited and joyous voices which could be recognized by every person on earth, were they there to hear it. In a trice, the linguistic alienation of all people from each other, the curse set on humanity for the hubris of building the Tower of Babel which would defeat God should there be another flood, was erased (Genesis 11:1-9). This new world would see people united again, proclaiming a new, unifying message. Jesus had promised this before he ascended to God, when he told them not to run away until this had been fulfilled. God’s Holy Spirit had now arrived on earth, transforming Jesus’ followers in an instant. These newly minted apostles and friends could not wait to smash open those locked doors and rush out into the streets crowded with Shevuot/Pentecost pilgrims to proclaim, for the first time, the gospel of the Lord. Their cowardice was utterly transformed into the courage and strength of people filled with such Good News that they had to share it with everyone. There were never to be locked doors again. And so the Church was born – the Birthday of the Church resulting from the Descent of the Holy Spirit. And over the years the Jewish feast of Pentecost became overwhelmingly identified as Christian.

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Pentecost, El Greco, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

There are three world-changing events which altered all of history. The first is recorded in the 12th chapter of the Book of Genesis. A still small voice spoke to an old man, Abram, telling him to uproot and go to a place the voice would describe. And he did. God had entered the world for the first time, and salvation history began. 2000 or so years later God intervened a second time with an angel sent by God to a young girl to ask her to bear the Son of God, our feast of the Annunciation, the Conception of Jesus. Thus the Messiah appeared and taught us how to live happy, fulfilling and holy lives serving each other, with the prospect of eternal life to follow. And today is the third and final event, the last before the great and final judgement of all people. And if you consider these events, they mark the arrival, first, of God the Father, then God’s Son and today the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit, in whose age we all live today. The Father outlined the pathway all humans should follow as God’s chosen people. The Son, being totally human as well as divine, showed concretely how those guidelines and commandments can be lived in actual life by any of us. In other words, what God truly wishes of us. The Spirit was sent to us to guide us, to inspire us, to be true followers of God’s life-giving rule. The divine plan was complete. And we are here today as God’s holy people, fortunate recipients of the path to true happiness – blessedness – and joy in life. 

Flame, Babbitt, Minnesota Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2003, Tammy and Kevin Gilmore.

Flame, Tammy and Kevin Gilmore, Evangelical Lutheran Church, Babbitt, Minnesota, USA.

When you think of those terrified first Christians cowering in a room in Jerusalem one moment and then bursting into the street talking to anyone who would listen to them about the life message of Jesus, for what greater evidence could one ask?  Here was the actual presence of God and its miraculous effect of God’s Holy Spirit. What other explanation can you think of which would explain people immobilized by dread fear of crucifixion suddenly proclaiming the exact same message of Jesus which had led to his death? It is, I think, the Christian miracle of all time! There is no other explanation for such a complete change of behavior. And that same Spirit rested on us Christians at our baptism. We have no excuse for avoiding the right way of living within God’s holy plan, for in that way we, as God’s children, can achieve true happiness and fulfillment even in this life, as we look forward to even greater happiness in the world to come. 

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