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Pentecost Joy 2014

Sunday, June 08, 2014
Readings: Acts 2:1-11.

At first glance, the miracle associated with Pentecost seems quite unnecessary: the ‘devout men living in Jerusalem’ are already dwelling together, naturally sharing the common lingua franca of the empire, before their linguistic divisions are supernaturally overcome by the Holy Spirit. In precisely this superfluity, however, the miracle of Pentecost underlines the utterly gratuitous super-abundance of God’s self-giving grace. No miracle is strictly necessary, least of all the miracle of our salvation. Nonetheless, despite the seemingly redundant miracle that accompanies it, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is far from incidental to our Christian vocation, nor is the form of its visible manifestation at Jerusalem at all arbitrary: in fact, the visible miracle highlights Pentecost’s status as the definitive overcoming of the human pride, or hubris, that was manifested at Babel. 

The primeval history of the Book of Genesis (located in its first eleven chapters) records the spread and growth of sin outwards from the Garden of Eden, and God’s matching it by the addition of grace upon grace through which he overcomes the disorder of human sin. These chapters culminate in the story of the Tower of Babel, the moment at which God introduces linguistic division into human history as a means of frustrating human collaboration in the sinful project of attempting to breach the barrier between heaven and earth by climbing out of human history into the eternity above the earth. At Pentecost, by contrast, humanity is gathered together by the gift of the common ‘language’ of the Holy Spirit, being brought to participate in God’s own project enacted in human history, that of elevating creaturely realities to enjoy the uncreated Trinitarian life of God. 

In overcoming Babel, however, God does not annihilate its linguistic differences: the multiplicity that Babel introduced is left gloriously intact. Rather, the miracle of Pentecost is one both of speaking and of hearing, with each person speaking their own language and yet being heard in the distinctive first language of the individual hearer. Rather than inscribing into Christianity the common human experience of difference as a division—a barrier that prevents communion—Pentecost establishes difference as true diversity, an opportunity for shared joy, a manifestation of God’s creative delight and an expression of Trinitarian unity amidst difference. This establishment of true Pentecostal diversity reflects God’s subversion of the human ‘tyranny of normality’ that—in its fear of that which is alien or other to ourselves—demands conformity and the repudiation of all cultural difference, and which—as the history of the last century demonstrates—has so often sacrificed human dignity on the altar of warfare, violence and oppression. This peaceful diversity, established by the Pentecost Spirit, finally overcomes the tethering of salvation to one particular cultural-linguistic group, offering the peace that world cannot give to all peoples and nations, “Jews and proselytes alike” (v. 11). 

Indeed, it is Pentecost that establishes on God’s terms what was groped after (but which could hardly be imagined) in the foolish human terms of Babel, kneading the leaven of Christ’s paschal victory into the life of each individual believer. By the incarnation, God brings the divine life ‘down’ to earth; by the ongoing mission of the Holy Spirit, God brings humanity to walk the ‘upward’ path cut by Christ’s resurrection and ascension into glory. But our ‘upward’ journey depends entirely upon Christ’s ‘downward’ journey to dwell with us, and his ‘upward’ victory ahead of us. Indeed, without Pentecost and its promise, the Lord’s Ascension would have been accompanied by a certain sadness, with the disappearance of the Messiah behind the cloud marking the absence of Jesus from the world that he has redeemed. The coming of the Spirit, however, disrupts our conventional disjunction between ‘presence’ and ‘absence’: Christ’s Ascensions is a bodily ‘withdrawal’ from the world precisely—and only—so that he can be present to the world in a new and more intimate fashion, by the indwelling of the Spirit within us and the establishment of the Church as the institutional perpetuation of this presence, which will endure until the end of time. 

Our individual lives as those incorporated into the Church—the Spirit’s visibility—by our Baptism, and sealed with the same Spirit by our Confirmation should be deeply and authentically Pentecostal: “telling out in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (v. 11). There will, of course, be those who mock, those who accuse us of excessive optimism and joy, and perhaps even those who suggest we’ve also imbibed too much of the ‘new wine’ (the devil’s buttermilk, as Dr. Paisley insists on calling it). Yet the Christian joy that we celebrate today is not the cheapened joy of the drunkard, but the costly joy purchased by the death and resurrection of Christ who goes ahead of us. This is a joy born of a perfect love, the unique joy of being intoxicated—here and now—by sharing in God’s own eternal life, a joy freely and inexhaustible shared in the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, which sends us out as missionaries with this Good News. This, even more than the rushing of mighty winds and the descent of visible tongues of fire, should do today as it did for those who first received the Spirit in Jerusalem: fill us with amazement and perplexity, and leave us with the question “What does this mean?”

Oliver James Keenan OP


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