Pentecost, Mary Reardon 1986, Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, St. Louis, Missouri, USA.
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[Jesus said] “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” John 14:25-26.
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Just five weeks after Passover in Jerusalem, the entire Christian Church was crammed into one room in Jerusalem (traditionally the Upper Room or Cenacle), behind locked doors (as stated twice in John’s gospel) scared to death that they would be found out and condemned to the same frightful death that Jesus had suffered. Remember that Jesus himself had told them to stay in Jerusalem, no matter what (Acts 1:4 and Luke 24:50-53 ), even so, two ran off to Emmaus, only to encounter Jesus himself on the way, and then return to the city. So the future of the Christian church literally hung in the balance! One imagines that they would have quietly slipped out of the city, one by one, never to be seen or heard of again. And one could completely understand that, except, of course, that we would have heard nothing about them 2000 years later! Clearly something had to happen to change it all. Jesus had promised them some sort of help: “Wait for the gift I told you about, the gift my Father promised. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5). So there were a few days in Christian history where, it seems, no trace of the Holy Trinity was present on earth, and the handful of believers trembled. Then it happened:
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
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.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven
staying in Jerusalem. Acts 2:1-5.
But first, some explanation of what was happening outside those locked doors. The Greek word pentecost literally means fiftieth, from the Greek word πεντήκοστος, pentēkostos (the number 5 being πέντε, pente, in Greek, hence pentagon, pentathlon, etc.). It was the 50th day after Passover. The Jews of that time called it Pentecost; today the Jewish name for the feast is Shavuot (“weeks” שבועות in Hebrew) as we Christians took over the Greek title in later years. Those 50 days were special for the Jews. The first fruits of the harvest were appearing in the fields, hopefully signalling another year of a safe food supply. Also, by tradition, it was 50 days after release from slavery in Egypt that the Hebrews arrived at Mount Sinai and were given the Law, the 10 Commandments, by God, so it was also the Feast of the Law. 2000 years ago, when the Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem, Pentecost was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts (along with Passover and Sukkot, the gathering of the harvest later in the year) when those Jews who could manage it, made their way to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple, hence the large crowd of people mentioned above, presumably scaring our early Christians even more. So far, therefore, this feast day has three Jewish names, the Feast of First Fruits, the Feast of the Law and Pentecost/Shavuot or Feast of Weeks.
Jewish holiday of Shavuot, DepositPhotos.com.
And so it happened, and this timorous group of shivering followers of the crucified Jesus suddenly changed into a fearless band of missionaries unable to hold in the Good News a second longer! And more – even with their Galilean accent they were able to speak to all the Jewish Pentecost pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire in their own tongues! The Holy Spirit of God had descended on them and they were now ready, willing and able to proclaim that the Messiah had arrived, that we were saved, and that the kingdom of heaven was calling everyone to an eternal life of happiness. That for which the Jews had waited for over 1000 years had come. Hence the church was born! This Pentecost was, then, the Birthday of the Church. And the cause? The Descent of the Holy Spirit. So just like our Jewish brothers and sisters, we too have three names for the feast we celebrate today, in our case, fifty or so days after Easter (for remember that the Last Supper was a Passover meal). Two further things. In Genesis, the sin of pride was absolutely demonstrated in the building of the Tower of Babel, to ensure that if God ever dared send another flood, there would be a place to escape from it, up that tower. God punished them by confusing their speech, the Genesis explanation of different languages. Now, at this first Christian Pentecost, that was reversed, and the one message of salvation was clearly offered and understood by everyone, no matter what language they spoke. Secondly, if ever a rationale for a miracle was ever demonstrated, it was this spectacular event. What, save God’s power, could have possibly transformed this terrified band of people into fearless and effective heralds of the Messiah? It ranks up there with the Resurrection and the Raising of Lazarus as an inexplicable, instantaneous and permanent work of God, a miracle. It was the birth of the church.
And so the Age of God’s Holy Spirit was inaugurated. It is through this reality that Jesus is with us today, in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass, in any gathering in his name, in the sacred words of God’s New Testament and in the priest who represents Christ in any gathering. The Holy Spirit is the One who inspires individuals to heroic action, bravery and witness to God’s love, especially seen in the lives of the saints. It is the Spirit who constantly calls us back to holiness throughout the centuries, and guides the Church away from sin and disgrace to holiness and purity. And God’s Wisdom and Spirit should be always honored with the title “She”. In Hebrew, as seen in the Book of Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs, both Wisdom and Spirit are feminine in gender:
“Get Wisdom; get insight. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her and she will guard you.” (Proverbs 4:5-6).
“For wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle….” (Wisdom 7:22).
Additionally, the feminine Hebrew word Spirit, Ruach, also holds the meaning of wind and breath, which becomes very interesting when, in Genesis: “the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Also, in Genesis 1:2, “the Spirit/Wind of God was moving over the face of the waters”. Now take a look at the quotation above from Acts 2 describing the Pentecost event. The words Spirit, Wind and Speech (breath?) all occur….
We can deduct easily, then, that Jesus, who probably spoke Aramaic, had always considered God’s Spirit and Wisdom as feminine. Now I do not say all this out of some sort of wokiness, but simply to state what is in Scripture! Many languages have gender attached to language; English jettisoned all that centuries ago, and consequently English speakers are much more sensitive to word genders as almost all words are neuter, gender free. Constantly calling God “he”, for example, where the French might not think twice about it (probably), can be painful for many believers. But God embraces all gender and all humanity, and is all in all as St. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:28, hence way beyond any stereotype or label. But we mortals are not quite that free, and so it is good, I think, to point out God’s universality in a uniquely English way that makes sense. Finally, the Christian revelation of the Holy Trinity makes much more sense in this light, with the love of God the Father and the (feminine) Holy Spirit eternally generating the Son of God. Remember that love requires an other. As the song says, “love isn’t love till you give it away” (Oscar Hammerstein, “The Sound of Music”). Then, in “Les Miserables” you have “To love another person is to see the face of God” (“Aimer une autre personne, c’est voir le visage de Dieu.” – Victor Hugo). To love is to share the life of God. At Pentecost, the earliest followers of the Lord were filled with such an overwhelming love that it had to be shared; as many as would listen had to be invited into that love, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). So the church – the Christian community – was born in love, and remains in such, and it is up to us to live it, share it and act it: it is the hallmark of the true Christian.
The Spirit of God, Stained Glass, Inc.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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