The Feast of Pentecost begins with a description of the disheartened and paralysed disciples of Jesus. The first reading from Acts describes them huddled together in one place. The Gospel of John has them cringing behind locked doors for fear of the authorities. This is not a confident group of followers. Their leader has died, their plans for future glory have been destroyed, and they are in hiding lest they meet the same fate as their master. You couldn’t paint a more bleak picture. The “gospel project” of Jesus is “on the rocks.”
Into this chaos of “locked-down” souls comes the mighty initiative of God. The door may have been locked, but the Holy Spirit comes from heaven like tongues of fire filling the whole house! Like a mighty wind, the Spirit penetrates their paralysis and gives them power to communicate, to speak so others understand and are stirred!
The parallel in John is the appearance of Jesus after the resurrection. Here it is noteworthy that in the Gospel of John, all of these major events take place on Easter Sunday. Jesus rises from the dead, appears to Mary Magdalene in the garden, appears to the disciples, breathes on them the Holy Spirit, all in one day! Though the door was locked, Jesus breaks through the barriers to bring a blessing and a mission: “Peace be with you! As the Father sent me, so I send you.” And he breathes on them the Holy Spirit. As they begin to preach, the amazing thing is that everyone understands them in their own language.
This whole story is made even more meaningful against the backdrop of another story from the Book of Genesis. It’s the story of the Tower of Babel in Chapter 11. The story goes something like this:
The people were making a move toward their radical independence from God. They decided to build a city with a tower to the heavens, so that they could gain the “place of control” and make a name for themselves, thus rendering God powerless or irrelevant. During this great and foolish construction project, God strikes them with different languages. Not being able to understand each other, they were dispersed across the world and here we find the beginnings of separate languages, nations, tribes, and races.
In contrast to this “dis-integrating”event, the Pentecost event is the exact opposite. It begins with a small despondent cluster of believers. The disciples are blessed with the Holy Spirit and preach in a way that all peoples of different tongues can understand. As opposed to the alienation and division found in the Babel story, here we have understanding, unity, and a bringing together of the disparate people under the Gospel witness of the disciples. This action pulling all things into one is best described in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he writes about the varieties of gifts but the same Spirit and many members, but one body.
The power of Pentecost is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, creating unity among a disparate people. By God’s intervention, a new thing is happening. It has been called the “birthday of the church!” The first and most important move is on the part of Jesus, who sent the Holy Spirit. We call this the “Divine Initiative.” Pope Francis names this action beautifully in his reflection when he first opened the Holy Door of Mercy at St. Peter’s Basilica:
“It is God who seeks us! It is God who comes to encounter us! This will be a year in which we grow ever more convinced of God’s mercy. Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved. Instead, let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things.”
So we pray for a powerful Pentecost event in our life and in the life of the church.
Pray for more moments of understanding, empathy and mercy between people who have been distanced from each other. Pray for unity in our church that is born of a willingness to walk with those who think, talk, or act differently from me. Pray for unity in our families where lack of communication has caused painful distance in our relationships. Above all, trust that the Holy Spirit will break into the locked doors of our hearts and bid us to begin something new!
As the fourth Eucharistic Prayer says: “So that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for you, he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as the first fruits for those who believe.”
Happy birthday, believer! Happy birthday, church!
Williston is a retired Parish Life Director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.