Before his resurrection the Gospel of John tells of a time when the disciples hid in a locked house. They still focused inwardly and found themselves paralyzed by the fear of what hostile authorities both civil and religious might do to them. This embattled Jewish community of only a handful of women and men had believed their teacher, Jesus, was the Messiah, but they wavered. Had their leader truly risen from the dead? Suddenly he stood among them and said “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me so I send you.” “He breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ”
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” This vivid description in the Acts of the Apostles marks another entry of the Holy Spirit at a crucial moment in our religious history. “(A) tongue of fire rested on each of them.” It filled the disciples with a holy zeal. This signified the breakout of the proto-church from their Jerusalem and Israel centric evangelizing focus. The wider understanding of their founding mission enabled a broader missionary impulse to sweep over them, facilitating the rapid expansion of what was to become Christianity across the circum-Mediterranean world.
In its first days the disciples found a ready audience and support community in the Jewish community in diaspora from Cappadocia to Pamphylia, both now in modern-day Turkey. They continued to rely on familiar Jewish customs and traditions. For the Jewish people the feast of Pentecost initially had been a celebration of thanksgiving at the end of the first grain harvest and a formal end on the 50th day to the time of Passover. Even for the Jewish people the meaning evolved.
The Romans destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. This attack on the core of their culture came in response to the Jewish revolt against them. Following this calamity the Jewish Pentecost came to focus more on the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai or Horeb.
As the early church developed, the Jewish Pentecost came to take on a specifically Christian significance, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. Pentecost for Christians marked the shift in God’s redemptive purpose for humanity from only the first chosen people, “descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” to everyone, everywhere and in every time.
Does the Holy Spirit still move us? It would be impossible to look over the last 2,000 years of our collective church history and not intuit the Holy Spirit moving through it. The People of God continually stray, as witnessed in the Jewish Torah and testament and as we see around us now. Prophets and holy people emerge constantly to challenge us to return to our true calling as daughters and sons of the Lord.
The power and privileges granted to the church by the Roman emperor Constantine as the quid pro quo of stabilizing a fracturing empire. However, this led quickly to corruption and abuse of power. The monastic movement under inspirational leaders like Benedict of Nursia grew as a counter to this. A half a millennium later church wealth again sparked a wide divergence from the founding vision of Jesus.
Inspirational guides like Francis of Assisi presented a clear critique of the deviant behaviours and offered voluntary poverty and living a simple lifestyle as a vehicle to ensure righteousness. Inquisitions, burnings at the stake and myriad other abuses like the Albigensian or Huguenot massacres and Jewish pogroms mar our history. The church even survived the notorious scandals of the Medici and Borgia popes in the Renaissance era.
The suppression of intellectuals like Galileo or the legitimizing of slavery, and a hundred other wrong turns were made, but still the saints and reformers showed us that the spirit moves among us constantly calling us back to the truth and light.
The classic saying of great Catholic intellectual of the 19th century Lord Acton continues to ring true. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Add on his next phrase for a fuller understanding of his idea. “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”
What about our own time? Church officials of the highest rank are called to account. Misogynistic and patriarchal structures weighted down by medieval institutional accretions block needed reforms. Reconciliation efforts on a wide variety of concerns are blocked.
We are and will be continually challenged to address the ills that afflict us either individually, or as communities, church and in our world. I have personally met and been inspired by people like Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Gustavo Gutierrez, Paulo Friere, and dozens of other witnesses shared by prophetic organizations like Development and Peace or KAIROS. They, like the Prairie Messenger, have affirmed that the spirit continues to move among us. More voices will emerge.
Many of us are saddened by the Prairie Messenger’s demise, but we must understand that the mission it undertook remains our mission: bring the message of Jesus alive in a world crying for him. It has been an honour and a privilege to write for the PM.
Our Pentecost comes continually. Will we accept our “tongues of fire”?
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.