The Descent of the Holy Spirit, L’Evangile Illustré: Quarante Compositions de Frédéric Overbeck Gravées par les Meilleurs Artistes de l’Allemagne, Overbeck, c.1851
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….a noise like a strong driving wind 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 2:2-3.
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Today’s feast day commemorates the birthday of the Church. Last week I mentioned briefly the church’s short definition of a miracle. The transforming moment has to be instantaneous, permanent and inexplicable. Today’s event satisfies all three without question, perhaps the greatest miracle of all time save for the Resurrection itself. Consider: the entire Christian Church was gathered in one spot, scared to death that they would be condemned to the same fate as Jesus; they were behind locked doors, as St. John’s gospel tells us twice. Even the appearance of the risen Jesus was not sufficient to encourage them to spread the word, as he himself had told them to. They were probably even more terrified at the time of this gospel passage because Jerusalem was packed with Jewish pilgrims celebrating the Feast of Weeks, Shevuot as it is called today. It was one of the great pilgrimage feasts, meaning in the old days a journey to Jerusalem to give thanks in the Temple was expected. This great Jewish feast commemorated the giving of the Law, the 10 Commandments, to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. By tradition that was 50 days after the Passover and the escape from Egypt and the miraculous passage through the sea, so it took roughly seven weeks, hence the name. But there was another name for this feast day, Pentecost, (πέντε, pente, five, being the root of the name). Additionally the feast was also a thanksgiving for the first fruits of the harvest in the early summer.
Then it happened.
It was sudden: it tells us clearly that in the Acts of the Apostles. One moment they were scared, the next they were not
It was permanent. The Church has survived from that day to this.
It was inexplicable. How on earth did that small group of people, hiding in a small room scared to death suddenly become lions of the faith, preaching to anyone and everyone who would listen?
It was a miracle!
Hence for Christians, this day is celebrated by an equal number of names: The Birthday of the Church, the Descent of the Holy Spirit and called Pentecost, a name which was taken from the Jews who now never use it. For Christians, it was 40 days after the Resurrection. And note the description of the Holy Spirit in this gospel passage. There was a strong wind at this event we are told. The (feminine) Hebrew word for Spirit also includes the sense of wind and breath, in this case the Breath of God!
Finally there is the appearance of the Spirit as of fire. A transformative fire, inspiriting the terrified followers of Jesus with a burning power which has not been extinguished in 2000 years. This is the power which has driven Christians down through the ages, the power which enabled martyrs to face any and every threat to belief in the Lord. In other words, it has given us the strength which Jesus had to face his terrible death, the strength to withstand any of life’s challenges. The strength to live the life that Lord expects of us, the life that leads to eternal happiness.
The Holy Spirit of God that day was extremely powerful in allowing these Christian pioneers to spread the word. They could speak in all the tongues of the polyglot pilgrims gathered from around the Roman Empire for the Feast of Weeks, a unique situation for a unique event. Scholars point out that all this indicated the reversal of the punishment handed by God at the building of the Tower of Babel. This was when the pride of the people thought they could conquer any further flood sent by God if they built the tower big enough! God confused their tongues, Genesis’ explanation of foreign languages (Genesis 11:1-9). Now a uniting force, also sent by God, reversed the old curse of division. It was God’s way of saying that all people should be united as one in one belief. So, 2000 years later, with the Christian church no longer one but many, we are still all united in the Holy Spirit, worshipping the One God, following the model established by Jesus the Lord. So this day represents the full realization of the Blessed Trinity, united in love, the overwhelming and all-conquering power from the heart of God into which each one of us is invited.
The Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Saint James the Greater Catholic Church, Concord, North Carolina, USA.
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