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Sunday, June 04, 2017
Today we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, often referred to as the birthday of the Church. It’s also the titular feast of our priory, the Priory of the Holy Spirit; so please do say a prayer for us and for our work.

At today’s feast we celebrate a God who keeps His word, a God who is faithful to us, in spite of our infidelities: Jesus had promised the apostles that they would be baptised with the Holy Spirit and today we celebrate the fulfilment of this promise as we recount how ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance’ (Acts 2:4).

Yet, it would be wrong to think that today’s feasts marks the first action of the Holy Spirit in the world or is even the first time that Jesus has imparted the Holy Spirit on His apostles. If we were any doubt about this, we are reminded of it in today’s Gospel reading, which is set chronologically before the first reading from Acts. In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to the disciples whilst they sit, cowering in fear, in a room in Jerusalem, and He breathes on them, saying: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained’ (John 20:22-23).

Two different events, then, and two different effects of the Spirit. In the Gospel account the chief characteristic of the Spirit is the forgiveness of sins and this link is brought out each time those life-giving words of absolution are uttered over us in the Sacrament of Confession: ‘God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son has reconciled the world to Himself and the sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins.’

What though is the chief characteristic of today’s Feast, where unusually the events of the first reading are our primary focus rather than those of the Gospel? That the Church directs our focus to the events of Pentecost suggests there must be a more profound reality being expressed than the simple gift of speaking many different languages: for wonderful as that may be, it pales next to the forgiveness of sins.
Pope Francis in his homily for Pentecost last year said that ‘the central purpose of Jesus’ mission, which culminated in the gift of the Holy Spirit, was to renew our relationship with the Father, a relationship severed by sin, to take us from our state of being orphaned children and to restore us as His sons and daughters.’

These words show both the common thread between the events of today’s gospel and the reading from Acts and in so doing point us towards the fuller meaning of the event of Pentecost; an event that we cannot understand the true significance of, without turning our minds to the Tower of Babel and the multiplication of languages. Up until this point, the ‘whole world spoke the same language’, the initial event of the Fall had not yet shattered the element of unity which a common language preserved between all mankind. However, the people who settled in Babel grew proud and sought to ‘make a name for [themselves]’ by building a tower which would reach heaven(Genesis 11:4). God, however, saw where the arc of their actions was leading and ‘confused their language’ so that they could no longer understand one another (Genesis 11:7). The result is a multiplication of languages, but the real loss is the capacity for understanding that previously existed. Added on to the effects of the Fall – where man could no longer relate properly to God, to himself, to creation, and where male and female were no longer in harmony – people now became separated by language and a crucial component of understanding and trust was lost.

Seen in this context the true significance of Pentecost starts to become apparent. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit the Apostles are able to preach the word in the native language of all the different peoples gathered before them. The multiplication of languages proves no obstacle to the preaching of Good News, but nor does everybody suddenly speak the same language again.

In this we are pointed to a lesson which is also implicit in the Gospel where the Risen Lord appears amongst the disciples ‘and showed them His hands and side’ (John 20:20) and where it is the marks of His crucifixion that seem to be the means of their recognition of Him. The lesson is that Christ does no undo history, rather He transforms it. We still have to live with the effects of Original Sin, but no longer are we held captive by them. Christ respects our freely chosen actions . . . and by implication their effects . . . . but, in Him, we are granted a new freedom, we are no longer enslaved to sin. He calls us to become members of His Body, the Church, and we are called into a union far more profound than a single spoken tongue, we are united by the Word made flesh, His Body and Blood, shed for us, become the visible sign of our communion and our common language.

All this is brought out in today’s second reading from St Paul, where we see how unity does not equal homogeneity, instead he points to how united in the Spirit, we are united by something greater and more powerful than ourselves, and how our differences can now be put to work for the common good of the Body of Christ, the Church.

The reality of this is made manifest to me as I write this reflection in a remote part of the Scottish highlands at a Youth 2000 festival. For Parthia read Portsmouth, for Asia Argyll, for Mesopotamia Manchester, but young men and women have been brought together from all four corners of these Isles and from further afield, by a common love of Christ and a desire to grow into a deeper communion with Him and with all the members of His Body. No institution of this world could bring people together to such a remote spot with uncertain weather and guaranteed midges, but the Church is no mere earthly reality, it straddles heaven and earth, and it is a joy and privilege to be counted amongst its members, in this stunning location of Craig’s Lodge which gives glory to God.

Toby Lees O.P.

Br Toby Lees O.P. Fr Toby Lees is assistant priest at Our Lady of the Rosary and St Dominic's, London.  |  toby.lees@english.op.org


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