The annual celebration of the paschal mystery, which began on Ash Wednesday, culminates at Pentecost. In a narrative evocative of major Old Testament themes, Acts recounts the overwhelming gift of the Spirit. Such a fresh outpouring of the Spirit was to accompany the messianic age. Also the first-century Jewish feast of Pentecost, which occurred 50 days after Passover, memorialized the covenant at Sinai. Having celebrated the liberating Passover sacrifice of Jesus, the disciples are formed into a covenant community that is to continue the work of Christ through history. As we celebrate the traditional birthday of the church, the readings present the genetic code of the living church.
Pentecost mandates that the church be aware of its universal mission. At Babel, humans who tried to raise themselves to God were splintered by different languages (Gen. 11:1-9). When God’s power descends at Pentecost, there is no longer confusion of tongues. Instead there is wonder, as people from the four corners of the earth hear the Apostles in their own languages. One of the most fundamental human divisions is broken down. Through the Spirit further barriers are surmounted, especially in the “Pentecost of the Gentiles” (Acts 10), when cultural religious practices are transcended. In our time no miracle easily surmounts these divisions, but the legacy of Acts summons the church to shape its life to different languages and cultures. Fundamental to this is the work of translating the Bible and liturgical books into the vernacular in a manner adapted to the local culture, so all can “hear” in their own languages. Recent moves in the church to restore Latin or centralize the preparation of translations scarcely reflect the message of Acts.
The Pauline reading speaks of another kind of Spirit-given diversity in the church. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to a community divided by problems that would encourage any pastor today to plan for early retirement. Initially there are factions gathered around particular leaders, followed by a host of strange sexual problems (a form of incest, visiting prostitutes), a theological food fight, marital problems, questions about the participation of women in public worship and disputes over the celebration of the Lord’s Supper—all less than a generation after the death of Jesus. Paul responds by recalling the significance of the Christ event. To those who feel free to eat food offered to idols, for example, he writes, “Through your ‘knowledge’ the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother [or sister] for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11).
He adapts his responses to specific problems, becoming “all things to all...for the sake of the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:23). His pastoral theology is epitomized in 1 Corinthians 12, where he celebrates different kinds of spiritual gifts but the “same Spirit,” by which each individual is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the benefit of the whole body. Throughout the chapter, diversity and mutual interdependence are identified as manifestations of the Spirit’s presence and gifts to the church. Claims to precedence and privilege destroy the unity and harm the whole body.
The Johannine “Pentecost” occurs on Easter evening, when Jesus appears to the frightened disciples with a twofold greeting of peace. These disciples, who fled in fear at Jesus’ arrest, are now themselves forgiven and told to continue his mission from the Father. Though they abandoned Jesus, he will not abandon them (“leave them orphans,” Jn. 14:18); though they failed Jesus, God’s love will not fail them. Then, reminiscent of God’s action at creation, Jesus breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you forgive are forgiven them; whose sins you retain are retained.” “Retaining sin” should not be equated simply with a juridical act. The Greek kratein can also mean “restrain or hold in check.” Through the gift of the Spirit, who is also the Spirit of truth, the disciples are given power to forgive sin and unmask and control the power of evil.
The infant church, born of the Holy Spirit and nurtured by its presence, has grown in wondrous and varied ways, and finds new dwelling places— “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”).