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Pentecost
during the coronavirus pandemic
May 31, 2020

Click here to watch the video of Father Ryan's homily
(homily begins at 30:00)

    Pentecost is a feast that speaks for itself. Even when we’re celebrating it in shutdown mode where the wind and fire, the colors and sounds are only virtual, it tells a story that doesn’t need much commentary. But a little context can 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.

     And our Christian Pentecost also celebrates the gift of God’s Law. St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, spoke of this in a Pentecost homily over 1500 years ago. “Pentecost,
he said, “marks the moment when the disciples of Jesus emerged from the Cenacle carrying within themselves the Law of the Spirit, the Law of Love, a Law written in their hearts. Each person became a living Law, a living book animated by the Holy Spirit.” I like that. Pentecost turns us into ‘living books 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. You remember: people who spoke a common language were so sure of themselves that they decided 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 Galilean 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 livestream liturgy and I hope we can know it every day. Pope Francis, in one of his homilies, spoke in his down-home way of how the Holy Spirit is with us now but how we are quite good at keeping the Spirit at a distance from us, 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… moves us, pushes us - pushes the Church - to move forward, and too often we prefer for the Spirit to 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. It’s about daring to engage the world with all its destructive divisions - personal divisions, political divisions, moral divisions (think of this present moment with its deep racial unrest and violence) - seeing these divisions 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 Apostolic Exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Pope Francis warns against allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, always hiding in what he calls safe, closed spaces. (We’re having to do that these days, thanks to the virus, but you get his meaning.) “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 can’t be the Church; it can’t be our life! A museum of memories is the 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 races, 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. May the Spirit annoy us, disturb us, prod us, push us out of our comfort zones, turn us into witnesses – disciples on fire – full of faith and love, conviction and compassion, mercy and a deep passion for justice. "Lord, send out your Spirit and renew the face of the earth!"

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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