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Pentecost
May 20, 2018

 


 
   Pentecost is a feast that speaks for itself. Its wind and fire, its colors and sounds, tell a story that requires little, if any, commentary. But a little context can always help.

     Pentecost was a Jewish festival long before it became a Christian one. For our Jewish brothers and sisters, Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, celebrates God’s gift of the Torah, the Law, to Moses and the chosen people.

     Our Christian Pentecost celebrates the gift of God’s Law, too, as St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, observed in a Pentecost homily over 1500 years ago. I quote: “Pentecost marks the moment when the disciples of Jesus “emerged from the Cenacle carrying within themselves the Law of the Spirit, a Law written in their hearts.  Each became a living Law, a living book animated by the Holy Spirit.”

     So, the gift of God’s Law, the Law of the Spirit written in our hearts provides some of the context for this feast. But there’s more. In the reading from Acts, Luke connected the moment of Pentecost with the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. The “strong, driving wind” that swept through the room where the disciples were gathered brings to mind the Genesis moment when a mighty wind swept over the waters of the abyss and God brought light out of darkness. So, more context. Pentecost is creation. Think of it as the New Creation.

     And there is yet another Genesis story that gives context for the Christian Pentecost. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel when people who spoke a common language decided in their self-assurance to build a city with a great tower that would reach into the heavens. They did this, Genesis tells us, because “they wanted to make a name for themselves” – which suggests that they were driven by pride and ambition. If they could just build their tower high enough it would pierce the heavens and they could steal God’s power and become more like God than they already were. Of course, when the tower collapsed, they ended up less like God - speaking a confusion of languages: divided, dispirited, dispersed.

     Pentecost reverses that story. On the day of Pentecost there were many languages but, quite amazingly, when people who were gathered in Jerusalem from all over the Mediterranean world heard the preaching of the disciples, each was able to hear them speaking in his or her own tongue. What should have been a hopelessly divisive experience, became this amazing moment of unity when the many and the diverse became one.

     So, historical context can definitely enhance our understanding of Pentecost. But Pentecost also has a contemporary context because, my friends, like all our feasts, Pentecost lives in the present as well as in the past. Pentecost is happening right now. I hope we can feel that in this liturgy and I hope we can know it every day. Pope Francis, in one of his off-the-cuff weekday homilies, spoke of how the Holy Spirit is with us now, but how we are quite good at keeping the Spirit at a distance from us, quite good at ‘taming’ the Holy Spirit.

      “If I may speak plainly,” he said, “we want to tame the Holy Spirit because the Spirit annoys us…the Spirit moves us, pushes us - pushes the Church - to move forward, and too often we would prefer it if the Spirit would just keep quiet and not bother us!”  As an example, he spoke of the Second Vatican Council, the “New Pentecost” of Pope John XXIII, and how some in the Church seek to neutralize the Council by treating it as a museum piece instead of as the living, dynamic, revolutionary call to action it was. “That’s the sure way,” Pope Francis said, “to stifle the Holy Spirit.

     My friends, Pentecost is about letting the Spirit bother us, annoy us, make us uncomfortable; Pentecost is about daring to engage the world with all its destructive divisions - personal, political, and theological - seeing them for the dead ends they are. How sad, then, when out of fear we are content to stand on the sidelines, clinging to our comfortable certainties, closed off to new ways of thinking, closed off to views other than our own.

     In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis warns against allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, always hiding in what he calls safe, closed spaces. “Closed spaces,” he says, “grow musty and unhealthy, and the only antidote to them is a holy boldness, the kind of boldness that sent the disciples to the streets on Pentecost.”  He concludes, “Let us ask for the apostolic boldness to share the gospel with others and to stop making our Christian life a museum of memories!”

     “A museum of memories.” That must not be the Church; it must not be our life! A museum of memories is the very opposite of the New Creation that is Pentecost because the Holy Spirit of Pentecost comes to us in fire to awaken and embolden us – to make us eager to renew and repair relationships – relationships within families and among friends, relationships between peoples and nations, and, yes, our relationship with the creation around us.

     My friends, may the Spirit of Pentecost come to us now in this Eucharist.  May the Spirit annoy us, disturb us, prod us, push us out of this Cathedral and into the streets, into our homes, our workplaces – into all those places where faith and love, conviction and compassion, mercy and justice can make a difference. “Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth!”

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
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