The Procession, Swanson 1982.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…. Acts of the Apostles 2:3-4.
This day marks the event which changed everything. It took place originally on the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, 50 days after Passover, one of the three Jewish feasts of pilgrimage (the others being Passover, and Sukkot, the Feast of Booths later in the year). The Jews in Jesus’ days called it Pentecost, meaning in Greek “fiftieth”, 50 days after Passover. That being so, pilgrims to the temple in Jerusalem may have stayed on after Passover to celebrate Pentecost also. Hence the crowds referred to in today’s reading (“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem”). Subsequently, Christians took over the Jewish-Greek name, so that today Pentecost is considered completely Christian. Christians also call it the feast of The Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the Birthday of the Church. The Christian term Whitsun is also employed for today, coming from the old English, or even the Anglo-Saxon, word “wit” meaning understanding or wisdom, given to Christ’s followers by the Holy Spirit on this day 2000 years ago. Our Jewish brothers and sisters today call it Shevuot, the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks after Passover, but it is also the thanksgiving Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, when the first buds had appeared in the fields. Also, by tradition, it was 50 days after escaping from Egypt under Moses that the Hebrew refugees arrived at Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments from God, so it is also known as the Feast of the Law. That makes a total of seven names for this combined feast! It also marks one of the greatest events in Christian history, the sine qua non of our church.
Consider it. The entire Christian community in the world was crowded into a small upper room somewhere in Jerusalem. They were praying, we are told, behind locked doors. Jesus had basically ordered them not to leave Jerusalem until the “gift” arrived, whatever that was (Acts 1:4). They were terrified that what had overtaken Jesus would happen to them too, as his followers. So they were in what would be called a “safehouse” today, fearing the worst, but hoping for… something. The crowds outside would be going to and coming from the temple giving thanks for the beginning of the year’s agricultural yield, and thanking God for their identity as God’s Chosen People, remembering the time when God chose them out of all the peoples of the world to receive the sacred Law.
Then it happened, as described in today’s first reading.
If I might venture an opinion, I believe this to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, “proofs” of God’s existence. What else could possibly explain how this terrified bunch of individuals suddenly opened those locked doors, never to be locked again, and rushed out into the Shevuot crowds to proclaim the news that the world’s savior, their Messiah, none other than the Son of God, had been in their very midst? The exact claim that had led to Jesus’ execution they were now shouting out loud to anyone who would listen to them. It was a complete and utter reversal which, I believe, can only be explained by the direct intervention of the finger of God, this time under the guise of tongues of fire. The arrival of the Holy Spirit of God inaugurated humanity’s third and final age, following that of God the Father in the time of the Old Testament, the time of God the Son with the life of Jesus among us, and now the time of the Holy Spirit, the age in which all of us are privileged to live. And, picking up on last week’s consideration of the Holy Spirit, note that the original Greek word “wind” in today’s first reading is πνοης, pnoēs, which can also be translated as “breath”. Hence you could say their safehouse was filled with God’s very breath, from which emerged tongues of apparent fire. Jewish identity had sprung from the Law; Christian identity springs from the very breath of God, breathing life, as it were, into that terrified Christian community, just as God’s breath had breathed life into Adam (Genesis 2:7). Nothing could, can or will contain that, hence the doors were burst open, the locks smashed and forgotten, and Jesus’ message has been proclaimed ever since.
And here we are, 2000 years later, but again cowering inside away from the covid-19 evil without. But there is a significant difference. We know that we will emerge at some time in the near future. In the meantime, this is an opportunity to consider the state of God’s church community today and our place in it. Where does each of us fit in? Each of us is the work of God as is the church community itself, and we all have a role to play. Am I playing it? Once we return to what is being called the “new normal”, what contribution will we all be able to make in helping the church recover its mission in and to the world? At the moment our opportunity is limited, but that means we have the time to pray, reflect and consider carefully what each of us can contribute. In that way, once the “self isolation” has vanished, then we can act on what this time of reflection suggests. Then we, each of us, can be God’s Holy Spirit breathing more life and strength into the institution we love and its mission. Hence this present lock-down can be considered God’s time if we are generous enough to make it so.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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