Father Donald Senior, CP

Speaking our language

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

May 15: Pentecost
Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Rom 8:8-17; Jn 20:19-23 or Jn 14:15-18, 23b-26

Pentecost is truly the day the universal church was born. We are familiar with the tumultuous scene portrayed by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, our first reading for today. Pentecost is a Jewish pilgrimage feast that takes place 50 days after Passover and is called Shavuot, or the feast of “Weeks” (the meaning of the Hebrew word).

It was on this day that the Spirit promised by Jesus takes hold of the apostles, filling the house where they were gathered with a rushing wind and appearing as “tongues of flame” that would instill in each of them bold courage and an irresistible sense of mission. Filled with that Spirit, the apostles break out of their room and begin to address the crowds of Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the festival from all over the world.

Remarkably, a sign of the Spirit’s power is that the apostles were able to speak in different tongues and to be understood by the diverse groups of pilgrims. This is a strong emphasis of this Pentecost reading; the amazed crowd exclaims: “we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

What diversity there is, perhaps all the more striking for us if we translate the ancient names listed into their modern counterparts: Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, Saudi Arabia. As we are all aware, some of these areas are wracked with violence and divided by dangerous borders today.

The commitment of the apostles to bring the Gospel to this diverse crowd and their ability to speak in such a way that the peoples of these very different nations could understand them illustrate the meaning of the Holy Spirit for the New Testament writers.

In both of the alternate second readings provided today (either 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 8), Paul speaks of the experience of the Spirit as a unifying force, transcending differences, binding together the members of the community, and putting their gifts at the service of the common good. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes the centrifugal power of the Spirit — it drives the apostles out of their enclosure and into the wider world.

All the way through the Acts of the Apostles, Luke will note that the early missionaries were led by the Spirit to break down boundaries and to reach out to peoples beyond the comfort of their original Jewish context. One of the greatest struggles of the early church was to navigate the cultural and religious boundaries of the Mediterranean world and to create communities united in faith and love.

Thus, even though coming at the experience of the Spirit from a different perspective, Luke and Paul agree that the power of the Spirit given to them by the Risen Jesus was a Spirit that enabled the early Christians to transcend boundaries and to fashion bonds of love and service — whether within the Christian community itself or through its mission to the wider world.

The Gospel selection from John reveals an even deeper understanding of the Spirit. Here the Risen Christ appears to his disciples who are huddled in fear and “breathes” on them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The later reflection of the church would amplify the mystery of the Trinity that is already present here in the New Testament.

The Spirit that Jesus gives to his followers springs from the very heart of the Triune God, a God whose inner life is unfathomable to us but we glimpse that it is a vortex of mutual love among Father, Son and Spirit. Therefore it is not surprising that the mission of the Son sent by the Father is to reveal God’s healing love for the world and that the impact of the Spirit sent by the Risen Christ would be to enable us, with all our differences, to become one people united in love and service.

The feast of Pentecost not only marks the beginning of the church but reveals its enduring mission to the world.


  • scripture