Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. It marks the end of the Easter Season, the end of what we call our celebration of the Paschal Mystery — the suffering, death, resurrection, ascension and coming of the Spirit on the disciples. We celebrate all these different aspects over fifty days as if they were separate events. But today’s Gospel has the Spirit being given ‘in the evening of the first day of the week’ (John 20:19), that is, on Easter Sunday. This is a reminder that the different celebrations we have in the Easter Season are but different aspects of one event. In our liturgical celebration of the Paschal Mystery we can easily recognise the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. The Jewish feast of Passover commemorated their release from captivity. Some fifty days after the sacrifice of the lamb marking the deliverance of the Hebrews from the Egyptians, the Passover Feast finds its fulfilment in the Feast of Weeks (we get the word, ‘Pentecost,’ from the Greek word for this festival), that feast that marks the Covenant God made with his People in the giving of the law on Mt Sinai. So, fifty days after we celebrate the raising up of Christ out of his passion and immolation as the true lamb of God, we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the apostles and assembled believers, the new People of God. Easter, the celebration the divine victory over death that holds us all in its power, finds it’s fuller meaning in the enlivening of the Christian Community through its empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost is the ultimate outcome of Easter, its meaning and fulfilment. The giving of the Spirit is what Christ came to do. (John 14:16-17) Its effect on the assembled believers is described in our First Reading: ‘Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ (Acts 2:2-4) Back in the ’70s I was taken a few times to a gathering of a Pentecostal Church. To sit there when they start ‘speaking in tongues’ is a seriously weird experience, and made worse when they press you to join in. The reaction of some who witnessed the outpouring of the Spirit on that first Pentecost is understandable: “They are filled with new wine,” they said. (Acts 2:13)

However, glossolalia or ‘the gift of tongues’ is not what Pentecost is about. Our First Reading goes on to list extensively the language groups present in the crowd that gathered to see what these first recipients of the Spirit were up to: ‘Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.’ (Acts 2:9-11) These represented the many different peoples of the then known world — and they were all amazed saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that we hear [them], each of us in our own native language …, telling the mighty works of God in our own tongues.” (Acts 2:7-8, 11-12) To understand what is happening here, we must go back to the story of the Tower of Babel told early in the Book of Genesis not long The Fall. (Genesis 11:1-9) At that time, the people of earth all spoke one language, and they put the collective power of their unity to work to build a city with a tower reaching up to heaven, where they could rival even God. For ‘there would be nothing they could not do after that.’ God thwarted their plan by the simple expedient of multiplying their languages. Unable to understand each other, they dispersed across the earth, each going their separate ways. Back to Jerusalem and that first outpouring of the Spirit, what we have in this ‘gift of tongues’ that so amazed the throng of different peoples, is an undoing of what happened at Babel. The ‘gift’ enabled them to speak so that all could understand, and those separated and dispersed were able to come together once more, the many peoples could now assemble together as one People.

Which brings us to the Gospel account of the coming of the Spirit on that Easter Day. ‘The doors were locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, but Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20) When he showed them his wounds, there was no doubt about who he was: it was the crucified Jesus himself, risen from the dead! As their sorrows turn into unspeakable joy, ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:21) This is the peace that Jesus had promised them earlier at the Last Supper, that peace they could get nowhere else, that peace that no one would be able to take from them (John 14:27): they now know him as Risen Lord. When he bequeathed his peace on them this second time, he added, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) That is, he gave them a mission, and their mission is the same as his. ‘And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:22-23) This is no mere judicial authority to declare people free of their guilt. It is much more than that. It is authority to bring people back to God, to reconcile those who have dispersed and gone their separate ways away from God, to bring them back to God. (Luke 24:13,33) With it came a power to discern those not yet ready for reconciliation. (C.f.: Acts14:9) Forgiveness of sins here is really baptismal language about reconciliation to God, with the giving or withholding of baptism consequent upon faith or unbelief at hearing the Gospel message. The words used here about forgiveness are really St John’s equivalent to the command of Matthew’s Jesus: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:41) So, the outpouring of the Spirit with its consequent preaching of the Good News in our First Reading culminatesin a mass baptism: ‘That very day about three thousand were added to their number.’ (Acts 2:41)

In our Second Reading St Paul puts it this way: “For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13) For as he says, ‘No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” unless he is under the influence of the Spirit.’ (1 Corinthians 12:3) The Spirit moves us to be reconciled to God. But then it immediately moves us to mission; as soon as a person is reconciled to God, acknowledging him as Lord, that person is obliged in turn to be a reconciler of others. (C.f.: 2 Corinthians 5:20; Ephesians 6:20) This is what the gift of the Spirit does to us, and in this task the Spirit comes to us as a ‘Helper.’ (John 14:16, 26; Matthew 10:19) This Spirit moves us to do what we can with the gifts we have: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” as St Paul puts it. (1 Corinthians 12:7) We are all, by virtue of our Baptism, called to be reconcilers to God, and in the Spirit we are given the talent to do so in our own particular way so as to build up the one People of God — and it may be no more than a smile for the stranger in our midst, the gift of welcome. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) We are not good at opening ourselves to the Spirit. Yet in our Baptism this gift has come upon us. We must learn to let it gently warm our hearts by opening ourselves to Christ’s Word, that it might move us to witness to the Lord we have come to know. (Luke 24:32-34. C.f.: John 14:26; 15:27)

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO