PENTECOST-B- May 23, 2021
Acts 2: 1-11; Ps. 104; I Cor 12: 3b-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23
by Jude Siciliano, OP
Today we celebrate God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ fledgling community – and to us. This is not the first mention of the Spirit in the Scriptures. The Hebrew word for spirit ("ruah") occurs over 300 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, from the very first chapter of Genesis. "Ruah" means "breath." The beginning of Genesis tells us, God’s Spirit was "sweeping over the waters of chaos and darkness. God forms the first human from the soil and breathes life into it and the human begins to breathe. Later, in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature, "ruah" is identified with wisdom and usually personified as a woman ("Lady Wisdom"). Lady Wisdom is the source of new vision and guidance for judging reality. Wisdom transforms those who receive it.
Since it is Pentecost our three readings and Responsorial Psalm highlight the diverse activities and manifestations of the Spirit. Today’s gospel passage from John recalls the opening words of his gospel, which announced something new is about to happen, "In the beginning was the Word...." John echoes and reminds us of the first words of Genesis, "In the beginning...", when the Spirit of God hovered over the dark and chaos and God spoke, "Let there be light..." and it happened. God’s Spirit was with the struggling Israelite community from its beginning, sustaining their faith. Jesus’ resurrection is a new first day, when the Word of God is breathing into a fallen humanity to raise them up to a new creation.
The Acts of the Apostles describes the gift of the Spirit with dramatic images of wind and fiery tongues, manifestations of power and new life. John shows another side of the Spirit, as a quiet and gentle breath; a another allusion to the Creation account. With his creative breath the resurrected Jesus breathes over and creates new life in his timid disciples. His breath transforms the disciples huddled in fear to become a unified and courageous community sent forth to preach forgiveness and reconciliation between God and among all peoples. Pentecost is not a once-for-all feast, but an ongoing celebration of the gift of God’s Spirit, who is always with us, inseparable from believers.
Jesus breathed the Spirit in his disciples and offered them peace, not just for themselves, but for a very concrete purpose, to make peace among those who have sinned and are alienated from God. John assures us today that the Spirit will always be with disciples – as present as their own breath. The Spirit enables us to do what Jesus promised: "I solemnly assure you the one who has faith in me will do the works I do and greater far then these" (14:12).
The Scriptures give us insights into the activities of the Spirit. It is as gentle as breath, because some situations require us to pause and take a breath – as a reminder of the ever-present breath of the Spirit – then to speak and act. Other situations, like peacemaking, forgiving, working tirelessly for the poor and the work of justice, require what Acts also tells us about the Spirit: it is with us like a "driving wind," and gifts us with language – just what we Christians need for the long haul in a sometimes-resistant church and world.
Fire, another sign of the Spirit’s presence, animates and helps us be energetic, passionate and consumed by our mission to the world. The Spirit’s fire enables us to see by shedding light on dark and abandoned places. It helps us accomplish big tasks in God’s name – like the food pantries we have in our diocese that receives large donations from individuals and stores. The Spirit’s fire motivates the volunteers who come out during the pandemic to stack shelves at the pantry and respectfully guide the needy in their choice of food for their families. The fiery Spirit helps us do what Jesus did by his compassion for the least. You can see the obvious signs of the Spirit’s presence in animated, wind-driven Christians who, with the Spirit’s light, see what needs to be done and are on fire to do it.
Jesus, just risen from the dead, does not reprimand his disciples. Instead, by his simple gift of peace, reconciles them with himself. Then, he addresses the "business at hand," telling them: you go and do likewise, be apostles of forgiveness driven by the wind of the Spirit.
This has been a stressing year for so many. Our spirits need a refreshing touch by the Spirit of God, not just to survive, but thrive in faith. As individuals and a believing community, we long for a renewed sense of God’s tender and comforting love for us. We also need to be assured of God’s unfailing care. That is the work of the Spirit, who urges us to reach out in confidence for the gifts we need to guide us through these extra-difficult days. When we return to a regular routine, will our faith have withered during this year’s desert journey? Or, will our spirits have grown under the tests we have encountered; grown because we have yearned for and been open to receive the ever-new influx of the Spirit, who bears what Paul calls, "Different kinds of spiritual gifts… Different forms of service… Different workings, but the same Lord"? He also assures us, "To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit."
As we celebrate this Pentecost we can follow Paul’s pointing and ask: "What manifestations of the Spirit have I received over these months?" Since the Spirit has not only given gifts for our individual needs, we might also take Paul’s lead today and ask, "How can I use the gifts of the Spirit for the benefit of others in my worshiping community and the broader world beyond?
As an aside: there is a question of the numbers. Traditional artistic renderings of the Pentecost event show the descent of the Spirit’s tongues of fire on the Blessed Mother and a small group of the apostles. Those paintings are lovely, but do take a limited perspective. Luke tells us, "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled they were all in one place together." Who were the "all"? Earlier in Acts he estimates 120 men and women disciples gathered in prayer (1:14-15). Is that a suggestion that the Spirit wasn’t limited to a few, but to a larger community who, through the Spirit, is sent out to the world to proclaim the gospel? Subsequent chapters in Acts will show how the Spirit-gifted community went out beyond their traditional Jewish roots to manifest and share with the world the fruits of the Spirit they received on Pentecost.