Readings: Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13; John 20:19-23
The Solemnity of Pentecost is a splendid reminder of the universality of the love God has for us. At Pentecost, fifty days after Easter, the Church celebrates the powerful presence of God in our midst through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, poured out upon the people of God in ages past and to the present day. The traditional list of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is derived from Isaiah the Prophet, chapter 11, verses 1 – 3: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord.
In essence, Pentecost Sunday recounts the outpouring of these gifts by the Holy Spirit on the apostles and other disciples and the Mother of Jesus ten days after the Ascension of Jesus and fifty days after his resurrection. This is traditionally considered the beginning of the Church, the birthday of the Church.
Human history constantly speaks to us of the effects of sin. It is enough to look at the pages of any history book to see much division between peoples, leading to hatred, wars, death and revenge. Salvation history, on the other hand, recounted in Sacred Scripture, is about the presence of God constantly inviting people to overcome their divisions by what is sometimes called an “unseen warfare,” also referred to as “spiritual combat.”
This of course is not at all about taking up arms against others in the name of God, but of zealously striving to turn the entire heart and life over to God, seeking to do good, avoiding sin, loving and forgiving others, in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ. But this takes effort and work, comparable to warfare, but once again, understood as a spiritual endeavor.
In the books of the Bible we do in fact find a repetition of secular history, namely, the reality of division, war, hate, death and revenge, but with a difference: in the Bible we repeatedly hear about the distinct call from God. That call is to turn from sin and accept the invitation to live by the law of love and forgiveness. God makes that possible by constant intervention in human lives and by communicating to those who will listen.
Christians believe that salvation history culminates in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, acknowledged as the Redeemer of the human race. All that Christ promised during his public ministry was fulfilled at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples so that they could go forth and bear witness to the mystery of life and salvation in God. The consequences of sin, the divisions that exist between people may still be present in the world, but the possibility of overcoming them and living a new life in Christ came to the fore in the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Sacred Scripture gives a clear example of the consequences of sin in the story of the Tower of Babel, from the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis. It is essentially the story of pride, when people decide to make a name for them selves by building a tower up to the sky in order to reach God. That plan is rejected by God, who scatters the people over the earth, resulting in confusion of languages and ultimately division between peoples. As cooperation and communication between people gets lost in the process, so also is lost communion with God.
The miracle of Pentecost, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter two, is the opposite of the Babel story. At Pentecost people of diverse tongues unite. They come to realize that they are all in essence equal to each other, meaning everyone is eligible for receiving life in God and of being in communion with God and one another.
The grace of God produces unity and the disciples of Jesus experience this concretely at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. “God is a God, not of confusion, but of peace,” Saint Paul reminds the believers at Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:33).
The message of Pentecost is simply that the direction of human history has changed. People can be forgiven of their sins and at peace with and reconciled to God, who has shared in our human nature in order to lift humankind to God.
Peace is the result of forgiveness. The Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (in the past more often called Confession or Penance) traditionally ends with “Go in peace, the Lord has forgiven you your sins.” Peace is a gift from God, the fruit of the cooperation of people with the grace of God. Those who act in accord with God’s will acquire interior peace.
It is no accident that Jesus clearly stated at the time of the coming of the Holy Spirit: “Peace be with you.” This above all is what he wishes to give his followers. It is not the peace of the world, the absence of war and abundance of material goods, for example. The peace of Christ is something else, a peace which no one can take away, which endures forever, which is without cost but more valuable than any earthly good. In essence peace is closely linked to the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.
To his followers, who receive the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave and gives a particular commandment, namely, to carry his peace, the message of salvation, to the ends of the earth. As the Father sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus sends his followers forth. The forgiveness of sins is at the heart of the message of peace, entrusted to the Church by Christ, born at Pentecost.
At Baptism and Confirmation the gifts of the Holy Spirit are bestowed in a particular way. What becomes of those gifts is dependent on willing cooperation with the grace of God in life. We have been redeemed in the blood of Christ, brought to everlasting life by the presence of the Holy Spirit, wherein our faith, hope and love will grow.
In the Holy Eucharist (the Mass and Holy Communion) we experience over and again the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit, who now and always pours out gifts on the beloved of God. May we open our hearts so that we truly experience the marvelous action of the Holy Spirit leading us from the shadow of death to the house of our Maker, who is our lasting hope and peace.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB