Pentecost Sunday – May 11, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
This wonderful feast brings our fifty-day celebration of Easter to its completion and its climax. The Church which had come to be in and because of its faith in Christ’s resurrection receives now the power from on high that Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit. Our three NT readings spell out dimensions of that gift to the new People of God.
The description of the first Pentecost is a miniature of the story that the whole of the Acts of the Apostles tells. Tongues of fire descend upon the apostles and enable them to speak in such a way as to be understood in the various languages represented in Jerusalem on that Jewish feast day. Already the Church is catholic: speaking all the earth’s languages. The linguistic chaos that followed the building of the Tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis is overcome, not, however, through the restoration of a single language but rather through the unity of message: “we hear them speaking in our own languages of the mighty acts of God.” It was the single message of the death and resurrection of Christ that now would make one people out of many peoples. This announces from the beginning that the Church’s unity will not be purchased at the price of her diversity, that the Church’s catholic character will be redemptive integration of the diversity of languages, cultures, peoples, nations that make up our human race.
The passage we have heard from St. John’s Gospel describes the same Spirit coming now as the peace which the risen Christ bestows on his disciples. As God breathed life into Adam at his creation, so the new Adam breathes his Spirit into the disciples and makes them the bearers of the great gift of reconciliation that Christ came to effect through the forgiveness of sins. The Church was to be the great sign and instrument of the reconciliation of all of humanity to God and the reconciliation of individuals with individuals, of groups with groups. It is no small thing for there to exist in our shattered world a community of men and women, a Church, who believe that such reconciliation is possible.
Finally, St. Paul describes how in another way the Spirit is a principle of both unity and diversity within the Church. There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, he says, but the same Spirit; different kinds of service, but one Lord; different works, but the one God. We do not all have the same gifts, the same tasks, and yet each of us has been given some manifestation of the Spirit for the good of the whole. We are like a human body, with different members and organs, whose health is the full flourishing of each of them within the one organism. We cannot do without others. Our gift cannot flourish unless those of others are allowed to flourish, and we cannot sustain our individual gifts except within a living whole.
These are three vivid descriptions of the Spirit’s work, and they have in common the integration of variety into a living unity. When Pope Benedict XVI was here in the U.S., he devoted one of his speeches to an appeal to unity within the Church. He noted as “one of the great disappointments that followed the Second Vatican Council,” what he called “the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family.” He urged us to turn to Christ in order to “discover the wisdom and strength needed to open ourselves to points of view that may not necessarily conform to our own ideas or assumptions” and to learn to “value the perspectives of others, be they younger or older than ourselves, and ultimately to hear ‘what the Spirit is saying’ to us and to the Church.” This is the way to “that true spiritual renewal desired by the Council,” to “that holiness and unity indispensable for the effective proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world.”
We have need, then, of a daily Pentecost, of a descent of the Spirit in light and power, overcoming sinful divisions, cancelling out perceived or real harms inflicted, integrating legitimate diversity into a healthy and vibrant Church, a living demonstration of the Gospel of reconciliation we preach as our main word to the world. The first Pentecost is often called “the birth of the Church.” It is a birthday we ought to be celebrating every day of our lives.