Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Pentecost Readings

Let's discuss 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 by Protestant 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 previous post.

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).

The other option for the second reading is Gal 5:16-25, which discusses the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control);  whereas 1 Cor 12:3-13 discusses the gifts of the Spirit.  The fruits are virtues enabled by the Spirit; the gifts are abilities or empowerments for service within the body of Christ.  In some movements within the Church that pay special attention to the operation of the Spirit (e.g. “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” communities) there can be a great deal of emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues.  There’s no biblical reason to object to speaking in tongues or other gifts of the Spirit, nor is there any biblical proof that these manifestations have “died out” with the apostles.  Nonetheless, there is also no good reason to think that the gifts rather than the fruits are a better indication that one has the Spirit!  Quite the contrary!:

1Cor. 13:1   If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Matt. 7:21   “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’

The point is, both the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit are important and necessary for building up the body of Christ.  Let’s seek them both.

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" (1 Tim 4:14), and objectively, tangibly hear the voice of the Spirit: “Absolvo te …”

Just as in the first reading, the Gospel reading from John 20 emphasizes the connection of the Spirit with the Apostolic ministry, and by extension, the ministry of those in apostolic succession.  There is not a “hierarchical” Church and a “charismatic” Church—there is one Church, and the Spirit moves through her officers.  Of course, when her officers resist the Holy Spirit, or don’t manifest the “fruit,” it is a sore trial of faith for the rest of the body, but the answer then is prayer and fasting (Matt 17:21), not schism.


De Maria said...

Wow! This seems to be confirmation of the comment I made on the other Pentecost post concerning Baptisms.

For the sake of brevity, I'd like to link to posts I made here and here on the subject being discussed.

It is so hard to understand how Protestants can claim that the forgiveness of sins comes through "preaching" only and not through the Sacraments when Scripture is outright:
Acts 22:16
And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

Washing away one's sins must mean to "forgive their sins" in Baptism.

I guess I can understand how they question the Sacrament of Confession as I don't see it explicitly in John 20:23. However, this is where the understanding of the Traditions is invaluable to me. Especially, in this case, the Tradition of the Sacraments. When we present ourselves to the Priest in Confession, it is as though we present ourselves to Christ, who said:
Matthew 9:5
For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk?

Christ can wash away our sins with water, Christ can wash away our sins with a word, Christ can wash away our sins through the ministry of reconciliation which He appointed to the Church:
2 Corinthians 5:18
And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation;

Yeah and Amen! It is the Sacraments by which we become citizens of Sion, in this life:
Hebrews 12:22 But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, 23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.


De Maria

De Maria said...

This is an awesome post of yours. The Scripture is so pregnant with meaning that it would be difficult to exhaust it ever.

Last night, I was watching Marcus Grodi's Journey Home on Youtube and his guest was Brian Robbins, a convert from Judaism.

In it, he made a different association between between the descent of the Holy Spirit in Pentecost (Acts 2) and the descent of Moses from the Mountain in the Golden calf incident. I'm paraphrasing, but he said that in the Golden calf incident, 3000 were killed as a result of their sin. Whereas, in the Pentecost, 3000 were brought to life in the Church by Baptism.

What an awesome God we have! What an awesome Faith! If you haven't seen this episode, I recommend it highly. Mr. Robbins made many associations between the New Testament and the Old from a Jewish standpoint.

John Bergsma said...

Yep, Mr. Robbins makes some great points.