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June 8, 2014

Listen to this homily! (mp3 file)
Listen to the prayers for peace from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian traditions (mp3 file)

     I’ve always thought that 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 (Shavu’ot) long before it was the Christian Pentecost. For three millennia, our Jewish brothers and sisters have celebrated this as an agricultural festival commemorating the bringing of the first fruits of the harvest to the temple, and celebrating as well 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. Pentecost, he said, marks the moment when the disciples of Jesus became “a living Law, each a living book animated by the Spirit of God.”

     So, the gift of God’s Law is context for this feast. But there’s more. In the reading from Acts, Luke connected Pentecost to the Genesis story of creation. 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: 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.” 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. They ended up divided, dispirited, dispersed.

     Pentecost reverses that story. At Pentecost there was not just one language, there were many, but amazingly, when people from all over the Mediterranean world heard the preaching of the disciples, each heard them speaking in his or her own tongue. Now, instead of division there was this amazing moment of unity when the many became one. Instead of people “making a name for themselves” by stealing God’s power, we have people empowered by God, people knowing they are like God!

     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. Shortly after his election, Pope Francis gave an off-the-cuff homily during a morning Mass. In it he spoke of the Spirit who is with us now and of our temptation to keep the Spirit at a distance, or as he said, our tendency to “tame 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 we’d probably prefer it if the Spirit would just keep quiet and not bother us!”  As an example, he spoke of the spirit-driven, spirit-filled event of the Second Vatican Council that took place 50 years ago. “We must not celebrate this anniversary,” he said, “by erecting a monument to the Council. That will make sure that it doesn’t cause us any bother. We will be like Peter on the mountaintop who wanted to stay there, build houses, freeze the moment, and let the rest of the world go by.”

     My friends, Pentecost is not about letting the rest of the world go by. Pentecost is about letting the Spirit bother us, annoy us, take us out of our comfort zone to actually do something, because our comfort zone is a dead end.

     A few years ago, the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch said all this in a different way when he reflected on what the Church would be like without  the gift of the Holy Spirit.  I quote:

     “Without the Holy Spirit, the Gospel is a dead letter on a page, authority is domination, mission, pure propaganda, worship, the conjuring up of spirits, and the Church just another organization. But with the Holy Spirit,” he said, “Christ is alive in us here and now, the Gospel is the power that drives our life, the Church is communion, authority is service, liturgy is participation and anticipation, and human behavior is charged with divinity.”

     That really says it all. The Holy Spirit and Pentecost are about life, love, service, community, transformation.  The Spirit comes in wind and fire to transform and heal what is bruised or broken in us and in our world; to renew relationships within families and among friends, relationships between peoples and nations.

     How fitting, then, that Pope Francis chose this day of Pentecost to bring together at the Vatican at this very hour the President of Israel, Shimon Peres, and the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas.  He brought them together to pray.  Nothing more, nothing less.  His spontaneous invitation to them speaks of a deep desire on his part – a desire shared by them and by all people of good will - to break the almost infinite impasse in that holy land and to give birth to something new: new thinking, new understanding, a new resolve, maybe even a New Pentecost, which was the dream of the great Pope John XXIII.

     So, prayer.  And why not?  Maybe, just maybe, where the political process has failed, prayer will succeed. Maybe, just maybe, God will use earnest, heartfelt prayer to pry open closed minds, soften hard hearts, and spark a renewed commitment on the part of these two leaders and their governments to let go of rigid, entrenched positions and finish the hard work of making peace, a peace that will assure justice for all.  We can hope! We can pray!

     After so much bitter history, after incalculable pain and suffering on the part of so many, after too many false starts, too many failures at the negotiating table, isn’t it possible that Pope Francis is onto something –- that prayer can indeed open a door to peace?

     To that end, Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple de Hirsch Sinai and Jamal Rahman, Muslim Sufi minister at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary, are with us this morning, representing their great religious traditions. In a few moments they will join us for the Prayer of the Faithful which will conclude by each of us offering a prayer for peace from our own tradition.  It is a rare privilege to have them here at the Cathedral this morning and a powerful reminder that we are all of us one people – children of the one God, children of Abraham, each of us.

     My friends, may the Spirit of God who breathed over the dark chaos at the moment of creation and brought forth light and life, breathe forth in our time and in our troubled, too violent world, gifts of wisdom, courage, compassion, and right judgment –- gifts that can heal wounds no matter how old, and memories no matter how painful; gifts that can turn adversaries into allies, and enemies into friends; gifts that can renew the face of the earth!   May it be so.  May it be so!

Father Michael G. Ryan




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