Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost: Getting Our Hearts Around the Corner

In Acts 2:1-21 Luke tells us that Jesus’ family, Apostles, and friends -- about 120 souls, as he mentions earlier -- were gathered together on the day of the Jewish celebration of Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks. The name comes from 
pentecostos, the 50th day, or 7 weeks, after the Passover celebration. One of three major Jewish celebrations, along with Passover and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Pentecost was originally a day of thanksgiving and rejoicing for the wheat harvest; later it became associated with God’s establishing of His people by giving them the Covenant through Moses on Mt. Sinai. On this feastday pilgrims would have travelled to Jerusalem from areas all around the Mediterranean Basin. 

During this week-long celebration, says Luke, there occurred one of those “epiphanies”, a shining out, a revelation, often associated in Scripture with God’s sudden appearance and presence. You can feel it in the images Luke uses: suddenly/a rush/mighty wind/flames as of fire/people filled with the Spirit of God/the murmur of many languages being spoken. 

The uniqueness of this Pentecost epiphany is in the proclaiming
of and the hearing, under the Holy Spirit’s power, about God’s mighty works. Later in Acts, Peter spells this out. The Good News proclaimed is specifically those mighty doings of God through the life, words, and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. The message is that all this is now to be preached and continued throughout the known world, guided by the Holy Spirit. 

I think it would be a mistake to view Pentecost as God the Holy Spirit’s coming in order to be a sort of Supernatural Cheerleader, whipping up in people of the early Church a formidable enthusiasm which we in the Church today ought to be seeking to recover; or to interpret the gift of the Holy Spirit as a sort of behavioral badge, given to somehow put a seal of approval on my own personal experience of God.

The miracle of Pentecost -- for the early Church and for us -- is that God is still powerfully present and working every day in people’s lives, and that this is still being witnessed to, told, heard, and hopefully believed in the name of Jesus the Christ. That is miracle enough for the Church.

Pentecost recalls all those other extra special moments in our lives when we’re touched, to the point of being ecstatic, literally “standing outside of ourselves”, by our awareness of God working in our lives and in the world. But if we were to be that awe-struck day after day, the ordinary things like eating, sleeping, working, and taking care of others would never get done. We’d be paralyzed by wonder.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of Christians who try to do just that: to invest as much as possible of their lives with the aura of Pentecost, forgetting that even Jesus and the great saints of history didn’t live “on the mountaintop” day after day. And, realistically, neither do you and I. There needs to be balance and proportion between the special and the ordinary moments of our life.

Let's be aware that after all of today's Pentecostal fanfare, beginning this week, the Church’s liturgical season is called “Time after Pentecost”.  It’s often referred to as “ordinary time”. I call it the “long, green season” because for the next 26 weeks we’ll be wearing mostly green vestments! By and large, the Gospel lessons during this time are about Jesus’ day-to-day ministry: his preaching, healing, and travelling about -- all seemingly terribly ordinary, except for the Spirit’s touch.

For some folks the word “ordinary” means “dull”, “boring”, or “joyless”. That’s unfortunate, for there’s something very special about even ordinary times, places, and objects. The organ in your chest, for example, your heart, beats with even, quiet ordinariness (hopefully), yet is the very thing which enables you to breathe and to live. The Hebrew word for “breath” or “wind”, ruach, by the way, is the same word used for the Spirit.

Trees and flowers which seem so ordinary and taken-for-granted, so normal, can still evoke amazement and wonder in us with their special beauty. And what could be more ordinary than the water through which each of us became a new being in Baptism, just like water over which Genesis tells us the ruach, the Spirit, hovered. Yet through it we became Christ’s own forever. Through this ordinary symbol and God’s mighty doing, we received the promised Holy Wind or Spirit of Pentecost.

Jesus Himself took ordinary human staples of food: bread and wine, and made them the enduring signs by which He becomes present with us until He comes again in glory. We ask in the Eucharistic Prayer: “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son.

And we, ordinary people, have been called in our Baptism, commissioned, ordained, to carry on the mission and ministry of proclaiming and sharing the Good News of God in Christ. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus says to the disciples. To receive God’s Spirit is to hear, to assent to, to let ourselves be guided into action, and to share Jesus the Word with anyone who will listen. “...we hear them telling in our own language the mighty works of God."

The story is told of a missionary who was sent to work among people whose culture had no word for the Holy Spirit as Advocate or Counselor. So they invented a new phrase which described the Holy Spirit as “the One who helps you get your heart around the corner.” Jesus has certainly delivered on His promise to send us “the One who helps [us] get [our] hearts around the corner”. In the power of God’s Spirit, who is the very Presence and Love of God, you and I, as ordinary as we are, are called to be “other advocates”, encouragers for others. There are many times when we all struggle because of the absence of Jesus (physically), because of the hopelessness we perceive in our society and in our world, or because of our own personal difficulties and griefs. The model for our Christian ministry to one another under God’s Spirit, rooted solidly in our Baptism, should be the role of advocate, comforter, healer, reconciler, encourager. Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in her book To Dance with God, expresses it like this:

In the mystery of Pentecost, we await the gift of
tongues -- the ability to hear and speak the word,
each as we come to know it, understand it, and
proclaim it in the uniqueness of our personhood.
The gift is to interpret the meaning of Christ’s
mission as it unfolds in our human experience,
and through it we discover a common language.
Meaning is what our waiting minds perceive and
love, the word each heart understands....

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