9 June 2019
This weekend we come to the climax and the conclusion of the holy season of paschaltide and the ascensiontide. The season of Easter concludes with the Solemnity of Pentecost, the fulfillment of Jesus’ resurrection promise to send the Holy Spirit.
Just as we Christians in the New Covenant have an annual cycle of feasts, so did the Jews of the Old Covenant before us. There were seven major festivals for the Jews. Two of those Jewish festivals have come over into a new expression in the New Covenant and they find their place in our annual cycle of liturgical feasts. One of those is Passover, which we celebrate at Easter. The word “pascha,” coming into Latin from Greek, means “Passover” and it is the same word for “Easter.” That’s why we make reference in our Catholic faith to the paschal (or Passover) mystery, the paschal (or Easter) candle, and the season of Easter as paschaltide. The second of those Jewish festivals that comes over into the New Covenant is Pentecost.
The Christian imagery of fire to represent the Holy Spirit is so common such that we likely don’t think much about it. Thus, in the Acts of the Apostles, when we hear that tongues of fire descended upon the apostles and disciples when they received the Holy Spirit, it sort of just seems right to us. But we can have a deeper appreciation for the Holy Spirit as fire when we look into the Jewish understanding of Pentecost, which we have adopted. Jewish Pentecost occurred 50 days after Passover, just as our Pentecost arrives 50 days after Easter. Among the Jewish feasts it was one of three that required pilgrimage, a holy journey to observe the feast. Over time the Jewish Pentecost, while remaining a harvest feast, took on a spiritual meaning as a celebration of God’s giving of the Law in the Sinai Covenant. It is in this context of Pentecost as a Jewish celebration of God’s giving of the Law, the Ten Commandments, that we can have a deeper appreciation of why the Holy Spirit descends as tongues of fire. Another way to highlight this is, why, for instance, didn’t the Holy Spirit descend as a dove at Pentecost, as He had upon Jesus at his baptism? Listen to the account from the Book of Exodus about God’s giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai (an option for the first reading at the Vigil Mass of Pentecost). Amid cosmic signs of thunder and lightning and thick cloud and a very loud trumpet blast, Moses brings the Israelites out of their camp to the base of the mountain to meet God. The Book of Exodus says, “And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire” (Ex. 19:16-18). Out of that fire God speaks and Moses, on behalf of the people, goes up and receives the Ten Commandments. So, notice the parallel: In the Old Covenant at Mt. Sinai, God descends in fire upon the Israelites who are composed of twelve tribes. In the New Covenant account of Pentecost in Acts of the Apostles, God the Holy Spirit descends in fire upon the twelve Apostles who represent those twelve tribes, and likewise descends upon other disciples gathered with them. This descent and its connection to God’s presence in fire on Mt. Sinai, we can say, is a revelation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. It likewise helps us understand that in our Christian observance, we have at Pentecost a new giving of the Law, a giving of the Law not on stone, but descending upon us, taking on flesh within us. God’s law does not remain outside of us, but indwells within us. Pentecost is an interior gift. This interiority is a significant difference in our Christian observance of Pentecost. We celebrate now the promise of Jesus fulfilled, namely that the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us and empowers us from within to live God’s commands.
Being empowered from within by the Holy Spirit of God, gives us another critical focus for Pentecost and what it means for us today. At Pentecost the Apostles and other disciples, by receiving the Holy Spirit, are anointed and consecrated for mission, that is, to be sent out to continue proclaiming God’s kingdom in word and action, and to continue the saving work of Jesus. I would say that Jesus’ accompanying action of breathing on the apostles and disciples as they receive the Holy Spirit highlights this sense of “going out,” this outward impulse and mission. After all, breath comes from within and goes out from Jesus. And breath can also move objects in its path. Likewise, the early Church, and we who receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit at confirmation, are empowered from within, anointed and consecrated, moved and sent out to actually work for and share in the mission of Jesus.
On this Pentecost, to have a rich understanding of our own being sent out on mission, I want to highlight two words from the Gospel selection. I’m going to bet they are not the words you might expect. What two words? The word “as” and the word “so.” It seems like a preacher would have to work pretty hard to get something worth saying out of such seemingly inconsequential words, right? But listen to how the words “as” and “so” feature in Jesus’ action of breathing and saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus says, “AS the Father has sent me, SO I send you” (Jn. 20:21). Think about what those simple words reveal about what Jesus expects by giving the Holy Spirit, this new giving of the Law internally with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Let me flesh those words out and insert them in this context. “As the Father has sent me,” OR “Just as,” OR “Just like,” OR “In the same manner as” the Father has sent me, Jesus says, “so I send you,” OR “even so,” OR “in the same way,” I send you.
Upon being anointed and consecrated by the descent of the Holy Spirit, with God’s Law dwelling within in them, the apostles and disciples on that first Christian Pentecost had a deeper share and responsibility for the mission of Jesus. Do we consider that for ourselves? God’s Law, God’s very self, the very Holy Spirit of God is not given to us such that we are just some nice box or receptacle to hold the Holy Spirit. No, Jesus gives us his promise of the Holy Spirit to push us outward into mission, to greater responsibility for his own mission, a mission that is first in the mind of God the Father. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In the second reading, St. Paul wrote “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (1 Cor. 12:7). Do you take time to consider what gift of the manifestation of the Spirit has been given to you, and for what benefit? Do we ask the Lord that in prayer? Do we ask other members of Christ’s Body to help us identify that? We should! The Holy Spirit is given to us who belong to Christ. It is not given so that we simply become a receptacle to contain it. It is given so that we are transformed and more deeply conformed to Christ. It is given so that we go out and transform the concrete reality of the places where we live, and move, and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28). Do we view Pentecost, our own confirmation, and the gifts of the Spirit given in times of particular need… do we consider those gifts given to us as requiring an outward thrust, an outward mission? We should!
The collect of this Mass (of Pentecost Day) makes an allusion to the “divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed.” It makes that allusion because receiving the Holy Spirit in our time carries the implication that the Gospel must still be proclaimed here and now and that the Lord gives divine grace to do it. Receive the Holy Spirit, aware that as the Father sent Jesus, even so he sends you!