Reflection for Pentecost Sunday, June 5th By Brian Maher OMI
Pentecost is the celebration of all celebrations!
Many years ago now, I celebrated a 50th Wedding Anniversary Mass for a couple who had returned to the Church in which they were married, to renew their vows and celebrate with their children, grandchildren, wider family, and friends. At the end of the Mass, with all the foolishness of youth, I brought the microphone down to them and asked them to tell us what 50 years of marriage was like. They looked at me as if I had suddenly lost my mind and said absolutely nothing. After a few seconds of excruciating silence, I muttered something suitably clichéd and withdrew to the sacristy as quickly as I could. Believe me, I never made that mistake again!
Anybody who has even tried to put into words a Spiritual experience, or ‘God moment’ as I prefer to call them, will understand why that couple said nothing. They could no more describe 50 years of life and love together than they could empty the ocean with a teaspoon. There are no words to describe the experience of love, just as there are no words to adequately describe profound pain, loss, grief, or joy.
The first Pentecost was, for the Apostles and those in that locked upper room, an intensely Spiritual experience. It was a ‘moment of God’ which was sudden, unexpected and which tore away the curtain of fear, doubt, and despair they had been living with, allowing them to experience, not just the God of their ancestors; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses, but also the Mission of Jesus within the life of God and now, their own mission to take his message of love, peace and forgiveness to the whole world.
Could they explain in words what happened to them or what changed within them? Of course they couldn’t! It was too deep, too personal, and simply beyond human words. And yet, what happened to them was so utterly life-changing and dramatic that they had to try to tell the others of their group what they had experienced. They did what we all do; they fell back on words and symbols that they knew would be familiar to their listeners.
For first century Jews ‘wind’ and ‘fire’ held a significance far, far greater than it does for us. At the very start of creation in the Book of Genesis the word ‘wind’ is used to describe what was hovering over the darkness and again and again in the Old Testament ‘wind’ is used to describe God’s presence with his people. In 1 Kings 19:12 God comes to Elijah in a ‘gentle breeze’.
Likewise ‘fire’: God appeared to Moses in a ‘burning bush’ and in the desert, shortly after they left Egypt, God guided his people with a great cloud during the day and a ‘pillar of fire’ at night.
Those hearing the Apostles talk of ‘wind’ and ‘fire’ would clearly understand that what they were trying to convey was God’s intimate and personal presence to them (wind), guiding them, saving them, and protecting them (fire).
The experience of Pentecost is outside the time frame of the Gospels and so is not described in today’s Gospel. However, it is found in the first reading of the Mass. It is important, I think, to try to understand it as those first followers of Jesus understood it. They would not have imagined a literal ‘powerful wind’ roaring through the house, or literal ‘tongues of fire’ descending on the Apostles. Indeed, they don’t even try to give this impression. What they heard, they say, was something that “sounded like a powerful wind…” and what descended on them is described in the words, “…and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire.” They were not describing some miracle of ‘wind’ and ‘fire’. They were describing something infinitely more profound and miraculous – the living and active presence of God in their lives and the living and active presence of Jesus within them.
It was an experience they knew was ‘from god’, and it was given to them suddenly, unexpectedly, and it was utterly and completely life changing.
All of us can have bursts of enthusiasm at New Year when we resolve to give up smoking, drink less, get fitter, spend more time at home or whatever seems important in the moment. Most of these genuinely made resolutions last anything from an hour to a few weeks but few get beyond that. It is not that we make them in bad faith, it is simply that when the realities of life impinge, they are not strong enough to last.
Almost all of those who were present at Pentecost were tortured and died rather than renege on what they had experienced. Theirs was not a burst of enthusiasm or a resolution to live a better life. Their lives were utterly changed and the ‘new’ life they experienced was real enough to withstand everything a cynical and unbelieving world threw at them. Pentecost, for them, was not a kind of once-off, exciting experience. It happened within them day after day after day, no matter what circumstances they were in.
So what was it that happened at Pentecost? While the Apostles did not yet have nice, neat, Trinitarian categories to describe the internal life of God, it is obvious that they were describing something given to them which was God, yet somehow was not either ‘Father’ (their Creator God) or ‘Jesus’ (the Risen Lord). It was not just a ‘presence to them’, leading to a burst of enthusiasm and joy, but more like a ‘living person’ within them, giving them a strength they never knew they could have; a courage to face death with the calm certainty that they too would rise with their Lord; a deep and profound Hope that the Kingdom of God had been ushered in with Jesus and would renew the face of the earth, and an almost overwhelming awareness that it was now their mission to keep the spirit and message of Jesus alive in their world.
For them all of this was new, and vibrant, and urgent, and immediate, and burning and ‘now’. They burst on to the streets, speaking to anyone who would listen. No barriers would stop them, neither language nor fear. They had a mission to fulfil and they had a Spirit living within them which would make it happen. They were like children, unburdened by the cares of life, unscarred by betrayal and distrust, starting something that they knew they had the energy to finish.
And just as an adult looks on the exuberance and arrogance of youth with a knowing smile and a certain cynicism that ‘they will learn’, we too, over two thousand years later, can look at the experience of Pentecost with the tiredness and boredom of that which is repeated over and over again.
And that would be understandable and allowable if it was only a message or a way of life we are sent to proclaim. But the whole experience of Pentecost was not about a message or even a way of life. It was about a person – One God who had created them, the same God who came into our world in the person of Jesus, and now, a new living, active person, the Holy Spirit, who would lead them forward in faith, hope and love.
That very same living, active person, the Holy Spirit, now lives within us. It is not the memory of a person who is gone, or a message tarnished by time, or a way of living which is too old or tired to survive in today’s world… NO! Pentecost makes what the Apostles experienced on that wonderful day just as new, and vibrant, and urgent, and immediate, and burning and ‘now’ for each one of us as it was for each one of them.
Yes, they were like children – the children Jesus called to himself, held in his arms, and blessed. With the living, active Spirit within us, we too are called to be like children – trusting, loving, embracing, reaching out to life in faith and hope.
It was George Bernard Shaw who said that “youth is wasted on the young.” Wouldn’t it be lovely if, as adults, we could hold on to that certain joy, hope and trust we had as children?
Pentecost tells us that we can. Not only that we can, but that we must!
Jesus came among us so that we would see in a living human person the height and the breadth and depth of God’s love for us.
Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God and of Jesus himself, so that the Gospel, the ‘Good News’ that God lives among us and within us, would always be ‘Good’ and new, and vibrant, and urgent, and immediate, and burning and ‘now’
Now I’m repeating myself!
This is the celebration of all celebrations. The Spirit of God lives within us, not metaphorically but really. If we can allow ourselves to embrace this gift, then we too can experience the joy, energy, hope and deep peace that God wishes for each of us.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” not once, but twice. He says the same to us today. His Holy Spirit is whispering it within us if we listen.
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Gospel on Pentecost Sunday, June 5th|
|John 14:15-16,23-26 ©|
The Holy Spirit will teach you everything
Father, may they be completely one
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