From Ashes to Fire

Pentecost started as a Jewish feast. Forty-nine days after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites arrived at Sinai. On the fiftieth day, God appeared on the mountain in the midst of fire and glory and offered a covenant to Israel. Jews continue to commemorate this event today on the feast of Shavu‘ot, “Weeks.” Greek-speaking Jews called the feast Pentēkostḗ Hēméra, “the Fiftieth Day.” It is by this name that the celebration came into the Christian tradition.


When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. (Ps 104:30)

Liturgical day
Pentecost, June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-11, Ps 104, 1 Cor 12:3-13, Jn 20:19-23

What gifts has Christ given us for mission?

How have you revealed God’s work?

How have you assisted God’s work?

The Jewish and Christian feasts both celebrate God’s action in human history. Christians focus on the risen Christ still present in the church through the power of the Spirit. Christ’s resurrection and ascension revealed new dimensions to Christ’s mission, but they did not change its character. He remained at work in unseen ways, continuing to guide his disciples. The only substantial difference was that his animating Spirit now became available to anyone who took up his mission.

When we join Christ, God’s work in human history becomes ours as well. In the second reading, Paul says, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” Christ’s Spirit sends us out to places Jesus was not able to reach during his brief public ministry. To accomplish his mission through us, he provides whatever gifts we need to bring it to completion. God continues to act in human history through the labors of Christians throughout the world.

Our most important task is to reveal God at work.… Such efforts continue the original work of the apostles, who spoke “in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

Our most important task is to reveal God at work. Perhaps we become teachers of the faith; perhaps we make it our mission to point out moments of grace that others miss. Such efforts continue the original work of the apostles, who spoke “in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

We also join God at work. God accomplishes most things without our help. Nonetheless, as our second reading shows, Christ provides us spiritual gifts so we can cooperate in God’s labor. When we provide our hands or voice or heart at the right place and time, we give God new opportunities to transform human history.

A word needs to be said about the Gospel’s unsettling talk of “retaining sins.” John might have intended nothing more than to symbolize the trust Christ put in his apostles. Augustine emphasized the medicinal value of this teaching: the “retention” of sins leads to repentance. While we may never find a fully satisfying way to understand this saying, it might be helpful to remember that discipleship comes at a cost. Christ allowed the apostles to turn away anyone who did not take his mission seriously. They “retained” their sins until they had the maturity to follow Christ.

The psalmist sings, “If you take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust. When you send forth your spirit they are created and you renew the face of the earth.” During Lent, we let our egos return to the dust; at Easter, God raises us up from the dust. Today, God calls us to transform the earth. We rise each day a new creation in the Spirit, sent forth to set the world on fire.

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