Pentecost Sunday

By Father Donald Dilger

First Reading: Acts 2:1-11; Response: Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 34; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12- 13; Gospel: John 20:19-23

In last week’s liturgy, we heard two contrasting narratives of the ascension of Jesus by the same author, one from Acts, the other from Luke’s gospel. This Sunday we have even greater contrasts in the narratives of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, this time by two different authors, Luke and John. The first reading is taken from Luke’s Acts of Apostles. Since the ascension, the Christian Community of 120 people were gathered around Mary, the mother of Jesus, awaiting in prayer the gift promised by the Father and by Jesus. That gift: the Holy Spirit. They prayed for nine days, therefore the first Christian novena, from the Latin word for nine. As our reading opens, Luke notes that it was time for the summer harvest called in Greek Pentecoste. The word as Luke uses it has no other meaning than fiftieth, since it was the fiftieth day after Passover.

Suddenly there was a roar of a violent wind, an appropriate beginning of the advent of the Holy Spirit, as St. Jerome vividly translates into Latin, spiritus vehementis. Tongues of fire appeared and settled on each one of them, not only on the apostles, (contrary to depictions by artists), but 120 people plus Jesus’ mother. The Holy Spirit is the Father’s gift to the whole Christian Community. Luke found the expression “tongues of fire” in Isaiah 5:24. The use of fire as preparation for proclamation goes back to Isaiah 6:6-7, where the prophet’s lips are cleansed with a burning coal to prepare him for his prophetic mission. Isaiah replies, “Here I am! Send me!” Wind and fire combined symbolize the presence of the Spirit, the warm, life-giving Breath of God, which filled all those present, enabling them to proclaim, just as the fire enabled the prophet Isaiah to proclaim. The tongues of fire appropriately symbolize that “the Spirit enabled them to speak in different tongues (languages). Luke’s choice of words identifies him as a literary and theological genius.

Pentecost was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts, the other two: Passover and Tents, when “devout Jews from every nation under heaven gathered in Jerusalem.” A large crowd assembled, drawn by the roar of the wind and the apostles now shouting (proclaiming) in strange languages.

They were no longer afraid of enemies. The crowd was astounded at hearing strange languages (tongues), yet understanding what the proclaimers were saying. This gift, still found among Christians, is called the gift of tongues. Understanding these languages is called the gift of interpretation. The people noticed that those speaking were all from Galilee. How or why was this possible? As possible as it is for people north of the Ohio River in our time to identify by speech many of those living south of the Ohio.

Now let us switch to another author’s narrative explaining the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. We enter the Gospel of John. It is not the fiftieth day (Pentecoste) after Passover. It is evening of the very day of Jesus’ resurrection, ascension to the Father, and return from the Father. All this in one and the same day! Sunday morning! The apostles were still in fear of the high priestly cliques that brought about Jesus’ death, and perhaps also of Roman authorities who condemned and executed Jesus as a rebel king. They were thought of as Jesus’ Gang, who might still be a danger to civil and religious authorities. So the apostles were secured behind locked doors. Suddenly Jesus stood among them. No longer was his body subject to the laws of physics. We can only dream in envy or at least in anticipation of that kind of mobility. Jesus greets them in their own Semitic tongue, “Shalom alachem!” (“Peace be with you!”)

They needed that greeting, because Shalom expresses not only peace in a general sense as a greeting, but also implies security, which at the time was their great concern. Self preservation! Other than that, the Shalom of Jesus can be seen as a symbol of forgiveness of his close companions. They had not distinguished themselves during his ordeal. For emphasis Jesus repeats his Shalom. Jesus states his credentials, the authorization of his mission to earth, now over, “As the Father has sent me . . . .” Those credentials are passed on to his ambassadors, “so do I send you.”

But they have to be empowered for their mission. This is the heart of the narrative, “He breathed on them . . . .” Why the breath of Jesus? In the three languages spoken in heaven, the word for breath and spirit are the same. Jesus’ breath moving over the disciples symbolizes his passing on the Holy Spirit, the divine Breath, who first breathed life into his human nature in the womb of his mother, when “the Word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us.” The chief purpose of the power of God now bestowed on the disciples, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven, and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”

Here is where the narratives of John and Luke meet, for in the speech that follows Luke’s Pentecoste, Peter promises forgiveness in response to repentance. Now we have seen what great differences two inspired authors can create to express the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Both are correct in their catechesis despite the major differences. Many years ago, a young man from Chicago approached this writer after his Pentecost homily and Mass. His purpose: a correction of the homilist. Here it is: the story in John, taking place on the day of the resurrection, is merely the initial dose of the Holy Spirit. The full dose would be given fifty days later, as in Luke’s story. No, dear child, we cannot twist the Scriptures to make them fit into your idea of the Scriptures as a history book in which all things have to be in harmony. Luke and John have very different theologies and express their respective theology in very contrasting narratives. Both use the Old Testament to create their stories, but that’s for another time.