Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Readings for the Vigil of Pentecost

The Lectionary provides a wealth of Scriptural inspiration for this weekend’s celebration of the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.

As usual, there is too much beauty and richness for us to deal with it all in depth.  Here below I've augmented commentaries I've made in previous years:

The First Reading Options for the Vigil:

  1. Genesis 11:1-9:
    Reading 1 Gn 11:1-9
    The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words.
    While the people were migrating in the east,
    they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.

    They said to one another,
    “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.”
    They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
    Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city
    and a tower with its top in the sky,
    and so make a name for ourselves;
    otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

    The LORD came down to see the city and the tower
    that the people had built.
    Then the LORD said: “If now, while they are one people,
    all speaking the same language,
    they have started to do this,
    nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.
    Let us then go down there and confuse their language,
    so that one will not understand what another says.”
    Thus the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth,
    and they stopped building the city.
    That is why it was called Babel,
    because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world.
    It was from that place that he scattered them all over the earth.

    This the Tower of Babel narrative.  Holy Mother Church suggests this reading because it is a kind of “bookend” near the beginning of Scripture that pairs with a “bookend” near the end of the Scriptural story: Pentecost.  Notice the contrast and comparison between Babel and Pentecost: in both cases, all humanity is represented (the list of nations in Gen 10 is roughly summarized in contemporaneous terminology by St. Luke in Acts 2:9-11).  In both cases, there is confusion because of speaking.  At Babel, they are confused because they do not understand.  At Pentecost, they are confused because they do understand.  The Tower of Babel tells us how mankind was fractured.  Pentecost tells us how mankind is reunited as a family: by the Spirit, which forms the Church, which is the new Family of God.  

    Notice that at Pentecost, Peter’s leadership and preaching is highlighted (Acts 2:14-42).  Peter’s role in the Spirit-unified Family of God is crucial.  Without his leadership, the Family breaks up into autocephalous communions (as in Eastern Orthodoxy) or innumerable denominations (as in Protestantism).  Only where his Spirit-empowered leadership is respected does the Family maintain its transnational unity.  The ministry of Peter is not separated from that of the Holy Spirit, and both act to maintain the unity of the Church.  It's not without reason that the stained glass window behind the throne of St. Peter in St. Peter's basilica represents the Holy Spirit.

    One of the purposes of the Church is to reunite the human family.  That is why forms of  church governance that divide along ethnic or national lines (as in Orthodoxy and Protestantism) without any higher unity can never have been God's intention, and they subvert the mission of the Church.  Only gathered around Peter and his successors does the Church have the opportunity to undo the fracturing of the human family by unification under one Papa.  

  1. Exodus 19:3-20.  The Sinai Narrative:

     Ex 19:3-8a, 16-20b
    Moses went up the mountain to God.
    Then the LORD called to him and said,
    “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob;
    tell the Israelites:
    You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians
    and how I bore you up on eagle wings
    and brought you here to myself.
    Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,
    you shall be my special possession,
    dearer to me than all other people,
    though all the earth is mine.
    You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
    That is what you must tell the Israelites.”
    So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people.
    When he set before them
    all that the LORD had ordered him to tell them,
    the people all answered together,
    “Everything the LORD has said, we will do.”

    On the morning of the third day
    there were peals of thunder and lightning,
    and a heavy cloud over the mountain,
    and a very loud trumpet blast,
    so that all the people in the camp trembled.
    But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God,
    and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.
    Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke,
    for the LORD came down upon it in fire.
    The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace,
    and the whole mountain trembled violently.
    The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking,
    and God answering him with thunder.

    When the LORD came down to the top of Mount Sinai,
    he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.

    The reason Holy Mother Church suggests this reading is that the Jewish Feast of Pentecost—which literally means “Fifty”, taken from the fifty days counted after Passover—was the Jewish liturgical celebration of the Giving of the Law at Sinai.  This parallel and its significance is missed by modern readers, but not by ancient Jewish readers of Acts!   

    At Sinai the Law was given in a fearsome storm, and on tablets of stone.  At Pentecost, there is a “peaceful storm” of the Spirit (the rushing wind, the lightning-like tongues of flame) and the giving of the Law on the Heart.  As St. Thomas says in his treatment of the Old Law in the Summa, “the law of the New Covenant is nothing other than grace of the Holy Spirit.”  

    The Spirit is the Law written on the heart promised with the New Covenant  (see Jer 31:31-34).  Hebrews 12:18-24 is a must-read for the connection between the Sinai account and Pentecost!  The pouring out of the Spirit makes the members of the Church into a Kingdom of Priests (Exod 19:5-6; see 1 Peter 2:9), a promise that was rejected by the Tribes at the Golden Calf episode, but is renewed to the Apostles and the other Israelites who heed their preaching in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and also to all us Gentiles who also partake in the same Spirit.

    On the first Pentecost Sunday, all the Jews gathered together from different nations who heard and responded to the preaching of Peter were reconstituted as the New Israel, the royal priesthood intended for their ancestors at Sinai but rejected by those same ancestors.  If the Institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday fulfilled the meaning of the Passover, then Pentecost fulfills the meaning of the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
  2. Exod 37:1-14.  The Resurrection of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s Vision:
    Or Ez 37:1-14 The hand of the LORD came upon me,
    and he led me out in the spirit of the LORD
    and set me in the center of the plain,
    which was now filled with bones.
    He made me walk among the bones in every direction
    so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain.
    How dry they were!
    He asked me:
    Son of man, can these bones come to life?
    I answered, “Lord GOD, you alone know that.”
    Then he said to me:
    Prophesy over these bones, and say to them:
    Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
    Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:
    See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.
    I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you,
    cover you with skin, and put spirit in you
    so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.
    I, Ezekiel, prophesied as I had been told,
    and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise;
    it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.
    I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them,
    and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them.
    Then the LORD said to me:
    Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man,
    and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD:
    From the four winds come, O spirit,
    and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.
    I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them;
    they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
    Then he said to me:
    Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
    They have been saying,
    “Our bones are dried up,
    our hope is lost, and we are cut off.”
    Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD:
    O my people, I will open your graves
    and have you rise from them,
    and bring you back to the land of Israel.
    Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
    when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
    O my people!
    I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
    and I will settle you upon your land;
    thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
    I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.

    The dry bones in this vision, at one level, represent the national hopes of God’s people Israel, which have “died” and been “scattered” by war, exile, and diaspora.  At Pentecost, we see a remarkably widespread, representative group of Israelites from around the world, gathered together in Jerusalem and “reunited” or even “resurrected” as the New Israel through the blowing of God’s Spirit.  They form the infant Church, the nation of the New Israel.  It had seemed impossible that the widely scattered people of God should ever become so reunified under David their king (Ezek 37:25), but Jesus is the New David, David's Greater Son.  The Israelites at Pentecost acknowledge the Messiah-Kingship of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, and so the Kingdom of David is restored after about 600 years of non-existence (since 587 BC).  This is accomplished by God's Spirit: "I will put my spirit in you that you may live."
  3. Joel 3:1-5.  The Outpouring of the Spirit in the Last Days:
    Or Jl 3:1-5 
    Thus says the LORD:
    I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.
    Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    your young men shall see visions;
    even upon the servants and the handmaids,
    in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
    And I will work wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
    blood, fire, and columns of smoke;
    the sun will be turned to darkness,
    and the moon to blood,
    at the coming of the day of the LORD,
    the great and terrible day.
    Then everyone shall be rescued
    who calls on the name of the LORD;
    for on Mount Zion there shall be a remnant,
    as the LORD has said,
    and in Jerusalem survivors
    whom the LORD shall call.

    The connection of this reading is obvious, since St. Peter quotes it as being fulfilled during his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:17-20.

    It should be remembered that at times, during the period of the Old Covenant, the Spirit had been poured out: for example, upon the seventy elders chosen by Moses
    (see Numbers 11:16-30).  However, the Spirit only came down on some persons for a limited amount of time.  What is unique at Pentecost is the outpouring of the Spirit on everyone who has faith in Jesus the Christ, in a permanent or stable fashion.  Moses' wish in the desert of Sinai is fulfilled: "Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!"  The people of God have not become only royal priests (see Exodus 19:5-6 above) but prophets, too.  As Christians, we likewise are given these three roles: see the Catechism §§901-913.

5. The Psalm.  Psalm 104, the great “Creator Spirit” Psalm, is the Responsorial for both the Vigil and the High Mass of the Feast Day.  Verse 30 is used as the refrain: this verse is virtually the theme of the “decade” of the Spirit that we celebrate from Ascension to Pentecost.  Psalm 104 celebrates God’s glory revealed in his creation, which is brought forth, maintained, and renewed by the Spirit (compare Genesis 1:2).  At Pentecost, the Wind that blew over the waters of the young earth blows again over the believers gathered around the Apostles.  The Church is the foretaste or first-fruits of the New Creation, since Christ’s resurrected Body is our food.  As St. Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!” (2 Cor 5:17).  This concept flows nicely into the Second Reading (Rom 8:22-27), where Paul refers to us as having “the firstfruits of the Spirit,” that is, already in a mysterious way participating in the Creation that is to come in the next age, a participation which as yet is denied to rocks, trees, petunias, and Labrador Retrievers.  We have the “down payment” of the Spirit, yet we await a fuller experience of the New Creation which will come at the resurrection, when the rest of nature also will be renewed.

6. The Second Reading is taken from the Epistle to the Romans:
Reading 2 Rom 8:22-27
Brothers and sisters:
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that sees is not hope.
For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.
This reading is pastoral and practical in tone, explaining to us how the Spirit works in our lives.  The Holy Spirit within us is the beginning of the New Creation, the life to come in God's presence.  Thus St. Paul calls it the "firstfruits."  Even though the New Creation is within us, our physical nature is still under the power of this Old Creation that is still passing away.  But our experience of the Spirit within us gives us hope that death and decay are not the final answer, but even our physical bodies will be restored one day to complement the renewal of our spirit.  

In the meantime, the Holy Spirit is the great guide to prayer--he "fixes" our "prayer mistakes," and presents our requests to God in a fashion that corresponds to God's will.  What a great comfort!  Even when we are bewildered by this world's chaos and cannot think of how to pray, God's Spirit within us takes care of the situation for us.

7. The Gospel:
On the last and greatest day of the feast,
Jesus stood up and exclaimed,
“Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.
As Scripture says:
Rivers of living water will flow from within him
who believes in me.”

He said this in reference to the Spirit
that those who came to believe in him were to receive.
There was, of course, no Spirit yet,
because Jesus had not yet been glorified. 

 This is the famous passage (John 7:37-39) where Jesus identifies himself as the Source of the River of Life which flows from the New Temple (see Ezekiel 47).  This image is based historically on the spring called the Gihon, which emerges just below the Temple and flows down the City of David (a very old part of Jerusalem) to the Pool of Siloam, which provided the water for all of the populace of the city.  The Gihon is the “river whose streams make glad the city of God.”  In Ezekiel’s vision, the Gihon is replaced with a much more spectacular river flowing from the Temple.  In John 7, Jesus identifies himself as the New Temple, and the Spirit as the River which flows from him.  The NAB translation of this passage is defensible, but I believe a different division of the Greek clauses is to be preferred.  In my opinion, the Greek of John 7:37-38 should be understood as follows:

“Whoever thirsts, let him come to me,

and let him drink who believes in me.

As the Scripture says,

‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’”

Translated this way, it is clearly Jesus’ heart that flows with rivers of living water.  I think this division of the clauses makes better contextual, narrative sense as well as theological sense.

Jesus’ Scriptural “quote” here is a paraphrase and summary of the vision of Ezekiel 47 and other passages from the prophets that foresee a supernatural river coming forth from the New Temple.  The Church sees in Pentecost the definitive realization of this vision.  The River of the Spirit is the water of baptism, which conveys the Spirit to believers (Acts 2:38).

We should note that Jesus spoke these words on "the last and greatest day of the Feast."  This was the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrated the Temple past, present, and future.  On the last day of the Feast (seven or eight days long), the priests pre-enacted the miraculous River of Life that was to come from the eschatological Temple (Ezek 47) by scooping water out of the Pool of Siloam (cf. Jn 9) and carrying it in golden pitchers up to the Temple, where they would pour it out on the steps of the altar, producing a temporary stream.  In this Gospel, Jesus is identifying himself as the Eschatological Temple, the anticipated New Temple.  It is from his body-temple that the River of Life will flow, which is the Holy Spirit.  At Pentecost, the Spirit flows as a might river from the side of the enthroned Christ at the right hand of God.  Though Jesus' enthronement cannot be seen by human eye, the mighty wind, tongues of flame, and different languages of the Apostles are tangible evidence that Jesus' enthronement has occurred.  


Nick said...

It's interesting and quite a paradox how God Himself is His Own New Law.

John Bergsma said...