Friday, June 10, 2011

Let the Fire Fall! Reflections on the Readings for 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.  I was minded only to deal with the Sunday Mass Readings, but the Vigil’s selections are just too rich to pass without a brief comment on each:

The First Reading Options for the Vigil:

  1. Genesis 11:1-9.  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 or various denominations.  Only where his Spirit-empowered leadership is respected does the Family maintain its transnational unity.

  1. Exodus 19:3-20.  The Sinai Narrative.  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 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.
  2. Exod 37:1-14.  The Resurrection of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s Vision.  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.
  3. Joel 3:1-5.  The Outpouring of the Spirit in the Last Days.  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.

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.

The Gospel.  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).

Now let’s turn to the Readings for Pentecost Sunday Mass during the Day.

The First Reading is, finally, the account of Pentecost itself, from Acts 2:1-11.  We have already remarked on the intimate relationship between this event and Babel (Pentecost is the Un-Babel) and Sinai (Pentecost is the giving of the New Law of the New Covenant).  It is important to note that the congregation gathered around the apostles comes not only from a wide variety of nations of the earth, but also consists of “Jews and converts to Judaism.”  In other words, there are both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles here: those who hear the apostles are truly a representative cross-section of humanity.

It is unfortunate, though understandable, the rest of Acts 2 is not read for this Mass.  A reading of the rest of the chapter should be obligatory for every homilist or teacher and  would allow the following points to be made: (1) the close association of the giving of the Spirit with the ministry of Peter, the spokesman to and for the Body of Christ.  One of the goals of the Church is the reunification of the human family.  Denominationalism and nationalism among non-Catholic Christians defeats this goal.  Like him or not, the successor of Peter remains the central figure of world Christianity.  All Catholics are united in their fidelity to him, and the only thing that unites all non-Catholics is their opposition to him.  Thus he is the great unifier.  See this article byProtestant theologian Stephen Long.  (2) The close association of the giving of the Spirit with baptism, and by extension the sacramental ministry of the Church: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). (3) The correlation of the worship of the early Church and Mass: “And they devoted themselves to (1) the apostles’ teaching and (2) fellowship, to the (3) breaking of bread and the (4) prayers (Acts 2:42).”  This is a perennial description of the life of the Church. We see all these same elements in the Mass, respectively, in (1) the readings and homily, the (2) passing of the peace, (3) the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and (4) the Collect and the Eucharistic Prayer.  St. Luke records the life of the early Church in such a way that we can recognize our continuity with them, because we are the same Body extended in time.

The Responsorial Psalm is the same as that for the Vigil.  See above.

The Second Reading (1 Cor 12:3-13) raises several interesting points.  St. Paul says, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord?”  Remember that Jews like Paul did not pronounce the divine name (YHWH) but substituted adonai in Hebrew and kurios, “Lord,” in Greek.  The fullest sense of proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” is to identify him with the God of Israel who revealed himself to Moses.

Further, Paul’s statement that “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit,” reminds us that Pentecost, while a extraordinary event, is not the first bestowal of the Spirit on mankind.  The Spirit has been active since Creation.  Particularly, a careful reading of the infancy narratives of Luke 1-2, to mention just one example, shows how active the Spirit was even before the earthly ministry of Christ.  St. Paul’s statement implies that the Spirit was already active in some way upon certain individuals who confessed Jesus as Lord in the Gospel narratives (e.g. Matt 15:22, John 20:18,28).

This is an important point to make in relation to the Gospel Reading (John 20:19-23), which is John’s record of the initial bestowal of the Spirit on the Apostles.  Sometimes this is called the “Johannine Pentecost,” but it would be incorrect to pit these two events against one another, as if John was of the opinion that the Spirit was given at one time, and Luke of the opinion that it was dispensed at another.  In the Christian life, there are certainly definitive giftings of the Spirit (for example, in Baptism and Confirmation), but the Spirit comes to us continually, not just once.

In fact, Luke does record the same event we find detailed in today’s Gospel Reading, although the fact is frequently missed.  In Luke 24:49 Jesus says, “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you.”  The Greek is present tense:  Jesus is giving the Spirit as he speaks, which is the event recorded in John 20.  The rest of Luke 24:49 says, “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from high.”  So Pentecost is not the first time the Apostles receive the Spirit.  Rather, it is a special dispensation, it is a “clothing with power from on high.”  We should understand it as an extraordinary empowerment with authority, gifts and charisms that they will need for their apostolic ministry.  As the Second Reading emphasized, there are many gifts and forms of ministry inspired by the same Spirit.

Finally, the Gospel Reading emphasizes the coordination of the ministry of the Spirit with the Apostles.  John makes the same point as Luke, a point we have remarked on in previous posts.  Highlighted here is the essence of what we know as the Sacrament of Reconciliation: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained.”  This emphasizes the purpose for which the Spirit is given: that our sins may be forgiven. 

Calvin struggled with this verse and ended up arguing that the “forgiveness of sins” referred to the apostles’ preaching.  Through preaching sins were forgiven or retained.  One can see that interpretation is certainly not the obvious meaning of the text.  Perhaps if the entire Church had always understood the verse that way, one could accept it as its meaning, but of course, that’s not the Church’s tradition either.  Like many other passages of Scripture, this was one in which Calvin could not actually live by the principle of “sola scriptura.”  When talking with other Christians, Catholics should remember that it is most certainly not a question of “them” taking the Bible “literally,” and “us” taking the Bible “figuratively.”  The differences between Catholics and other Christians revolve around which passages are to be taken one way or the other.

As a Protestant pastor I never even noticed John 20:23.  Now, I love this verse as an assurance that those vested with the leadership of the Church have been granted by Jesus himself the authority to remit sins.  I’m not left to battle with my own subjective judgments on my own behavior, which are invariably self-justifying and biased, but I can state reality before the man on whom hands have been laid, and objectively, tangibly hear the voice of the Spirit: “Absolvo te …”


Misfit. said...

What picture is that?

John Bergsma said...

It's a Maronite icon of Pentecost. I don't know any more than that.

gerardk said...

"Peter remains the central figure of world Christianity. All Catholics are united in their fidelity to him, and the only thing that unites all non-Catholics is their opposition to him. Thus he is the great unifier."

The unifier of all Christians and central figure of Christianity is Jesus, I would say. Can you explain why you say non-Catholics are against Peter? I can't recall hearing or reading that Protestants are generally against Peter, who Jesus appointed leader of the Apostles. I don't see how that questioning the authority of the Pope translates into a dislike of Peter.

John Bergsma said...

@gerardk: Yes, my statement was blunt and unnuanced. Unfortunately, if I made all the proper nuances, I'd never finish a blog post! :) That's the nature of blogging.

When I say "Peter", I am thinking in Catholic terms, encompassing his successors as well. For example, at the Council of Chalcedon the council fathers exclaimed, "Peter has spoken through Leo!" See e.g. So when I say "Peter" I am really thinking of the Papacy. The article by Stephen Long does a better job of making the point than I did in this brief post.