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Pentecost - Visible and Invisible

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

Last year, the very late Easter meant that Pentecost fell on my birthday. So, by a happy coincidence, once in a blue moon, I could share my birthday with the Church. Pentecost is often called the ‘birthday’ of the Church because it is the day the apostles received the Holy Spirit and publicly went out to preach about the Risen Lord Jesus. We can argue, of course, that the Church existed long before that, perhaps even before the foundation of the world. But as a visible and organised group of disciples preaching the Gospel of Christ, the Church underwent a special birth on that first Pentecost. The tongues of fire on the apostles’ heads might even – at least for those who are still young of heart – remind us of candles on a birthday cake!

Christians have excellent reason, then, to make this a feast day of the highest importance. But if we are not careful, we might find ourselves misunderstanding this momentous day. One possible misunderstanding is to think of this as the day when the Holy Spirit replaced Jesus Christ, as an invisible yet manifest presence of God among us. On this view, we might think that Christianity is all about life “in the Spirit”, free from doctrinal, organisational or other restrictive rules and principles. On the other hand, the opposite error would be to think of Pentecost only as the day when the hierarchical Church was established once and for all, the moment when the Apostles were empowered to become Bishops and, on Christ’s authority, visibly took up the reins of spiritual power on earth.

I want to suggest that neither of these pictures is complete, though each contains an essential grain of truth. The true meaning of Pentecost is the harmony between these two principles: between what we might call the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘institutional’, between the ‘prophetic’ and the ‘political’, or the ‘invisible’ and the ‘visible’.

Firstly, the spiritual, prophetic and invisible element is obviously at the heart of today’s feast, as the readings make clear. The disciples were gathered together not long after the Ascension of Jesus, and suddenly there came the noise, like the wind, and the tongues, like fire, to rest upon them. They knew, since Jesus had promised it, that the Spirit would come, but they did not know where, when or how. The wind blows where it wills, and that is what it means to be born of the Spirit (John 3:8). The life of God is beyond our comprehension. We know that God is love, and we come to know him personally in Jesus Christ, but beyond that we must throw ourselves upon him – like a desperate lover – in faith, in hope, and in love.

There is no life without the Spirit. And it is the Spirit himself who enables us to see the surprising beauty and extraordinary majesty of God’s creation – which includes ourselves. “Tell the mighty works of God!” (cf. Acts 2:11) The Psalmist tells us to look at this world, full of wonderful creatures, and share our appreciation with others. He ponders nature and praises the Lord for his ingenuity and power. But he also confesses that nature is nothing compared to God himself. Our very breath comes from God Himself, the God who breathes His own divine life into us:

“If you take away their breath, they perish
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104:29-30)

The prophet Ezekiel famously saw a valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Those bones represent life without God, life without the Holy Spirit. Whenever we lapse into a rigid institutionalism, like the Pharisees demanding law over mercy, we are like those dry bones. The Church, like much of our society, is never entirely free from this kind of thinking. If we place all our hope in structures, hierarchies, 5-year-plans and SWOT analyses, we shut ourselves off from God’s creative and re-creative breath. But when we respond joyfully to God’s call in faith and love, our Lord faithfully and lovingly breathes His Spirit upon us.

But secondly, Pentecost is the birthday of the visible Church. There is no Spirit without community. It is when the disciples are gathered, “when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled”, we’re told, that the Spirit comes. The Spirit becomes audibly present (with the noise of the rushing wind), visibly present (with the tongues of fire), and actively present when the apostles go out and preach to the crowd in Jerusalem. That great crowd is multi-lingual, multi-national, multi-faith and yet they are all united by the fact that they can understand the apostolic preaching in their native tongues. The Spirit speaks the same good news to all, regardless of race, nationality, or creed. All are called to receive the Spirit and join in the fellowship of Christ on earth, which is his Church. In that Church, Christ generously breathes his Spirit on us, through our faith and through our participation in the sacraments. Christ founded a visible church, with a visible communion between Peter and the other apostles, and through visible means his Spirit is limitlessly poured out on all who seek it.

The Church born on Pentecost is universal: the Body of Christ is numerous, diverse, and spread all over world. So it doesn’t matter that we don’t all speak in tongues (in fact I don’t know what that phenomenon would even sound like). The gifts of the Spirit are many, says St Paul, but there is one Spirit. There are different parts, but one body. That is why a 6th century African homily tells us we can all speak in every tongue, because we all belong to the Body of Christ, and that Body is universal, multi-lingual, united in its diversity – in a word, Catholic.

So, the spiritual and the institutional, the prophetic and political, the visible and the invisible must always be seen in harmony. Where our human frailty causes us to exaggerate one or the other aspect, we risk losing the unity and strength of our communion. But, in the end, thank God, the Holy Spirit is always there to bring us back to the right path, and He will lead us into all truth.

Matthew Jarvis OP


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