JESUS BREATHED ON THEM AND SAID: “RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT”
Sunday, May 24, 2015
Solemnity of Pentecost
19On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.21 [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Other readings: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:24; Psalm 104:29-30; Psalm 104:31; Psalm 104:34; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Galatians 5:16-25
As you can see, the possible choices for this Sunday are more numerous than usual. But this is a small detail when compared with the number of readings that the lectionary offers for the mass of the Vigil. Only Christmas and Easter can be compared to Pentecost in their biblical abundance.
After reflecting on the possibilities we have for our Lectio, I thought it was a real pity to limit ourselves to the texts of the Sunday mass, so I decided we would try a different approach. As you can see, I have only offered the quotations of the Mass of the day. Those for the Vigil are seven, and you will find them in the text. What is my plan, then? Something quite simple, similar to what I did for the Easter vigil. We will follow the readings in a very concise way, choosing one or two lines from every passage and offering some hints for consideration. After covering the vigil texts, we will conclude our Lectio in the usual way, focusing our attention on the readings of the day. Thus, you will have a whole biblical forest from which to organize multiple sessions of prayer if you so choose.
Pentecost, we know, is the solemn beginning of the history of the Church. As a “New Israel,” the small community is heir to the tradition in which the Messiah was to be born, announcing the Kingdom of God and starting a new and final epoch in the history of salvation. The group of witnesses, humble as it is, can trace their roots down through the origins of God’s plans for Israel and all humankind. So, we start with Genesis 11:1-9, our first reading, and see the stubborn reaction of men after the great Flood: building “a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for themselves.” Their pride is wounded when their one, single language is confused and they are scattered all over the earth. It is only at Pentecost that the Spirit allows people from different nations to understand in their own language Peter’s sermon announcing Jesus’ resurrection and his position as the Messiah.
In Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20, the Hebrews, after escaping their deadly fate in Egypt and just prior to Yahweh giving them the Law and making the Covenant with them, hear God’s promise: “You will be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Those words would be ratified when God came upon Mount Sinai in fire and the mountain trembled violently among peals of thunder. At Pentecost, although the disciples (or any other Christian, for that matter) did not approach the mount or experience that fearful spectacle, they did symbolically feel the signs of wind, fire and noise and were sent as witnesses of the new covenant (Hebrews 12:18-24).
The vision found in Ezekiel 37:1-14, in which Yahweh promises Israel that his spirit will open their graves and bring them back to hope and a new life in their land, is basically the announcement of a message limited to the historical dimension of Israel as the people of the Covenant, called back to settle again in the land of their inheritance. Some Jews understood the passage as the promises of a personal resurrection, but they did not seem to understand that it was, in fact, a foreshadowing of the double resurrection of those who would believe in Jesus. Through baptism in the Spirit they would be reborn to a new life of faith, and to the hope of sharing in Jesus’ own resurrection (John 3:1-15).
In his speech to the people on the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes this passage from Joel 3:1-5, but in his mouth the words of the prophet take on a new significance. They do not announce some event that would take place “in those days,” an uncertain future in which Israel would be renewed by the Spirit of the Lord. For the apostle, that very day is “the great and terrible day” and the community of Jesus’ followers, the new-born Church, is the new remnant of Israel. God has poured his “spirit upon all flesh” and “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will escape harm.”
After Psalm 104:2, 24, 35, 27-28, 29, 30, the same passage used in the mass of the day, Romans 8:22-27 picks up the motif used by the Psalmist: the Spirit is the one who not only “renews the face of the earth” but also “groans” in us (Christians); helps us to wait with endurance; sustains our hope for the redemption of our bodies; and “inspires” our prayer according to God’s will.
The text from John 7:37-39 reminds us of what we saw in the solemnity of the Ascension. Jesus’ glorification is the condition for Jesus’ Spirit to be given to us. So the disciples will not be left orphans, but Jesus and the Father and the Spirit of truth will live in them. As for the Spirit of truth, he will play a fundamental role: he will “lead them into the full truth” (John 14:15-26; 16:4-15).
Now we come to the readings of the mass of the day. In a sense, the text from Acts is disconcerting, as the fragment chosen ends just when Peter’s message is about to begin. In verses 2:1-11 we can only see the setting and the shocking details. The first community of believers, gathered as usual to pray, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and their words, expressed in different languages, were understood by the crowd, provoking astonishment and giving rise to their question: “What does this mean?” (2:12). I invite you to read the rest of Peter’s message (2:14-42), a passage in which Luke brings together the motifs that appear in the readings from the vigil and in which we can discover a clear line of progress in the history of salvation. Through the fulfilment of God’s promises, this progress has reached its plenitude. Jesus, although crucified by his own people, has been made by God “Lord and Messiah” (2:36). Those who repent and receive baptism in his name will receive the forgiveness of their sins and the Holy Spirit (2:38).
The two possible readings from Paul’s letters offer two dimensions in which the Christian community can discover the Spirit’s presence and his effective action. In Corinth, the spiritual gifts its members have received, diverse as they are, have a single source, the Holy Spirit, and are signs of the unity to which they are called. Just as there is one God (the Father), and one Lord (Jesus Christ), so the one Spirit in which the Corinthian believers were all baptized makes one single, undivided Church. In the passage from Galatians, Paul’s words underline a contrast dear to him: that between life according to the Spirit or to the flesh. It is not the simple, Manichean opposition of matter and spirit, but something deeper, living according to the standards of this world or those of the Kingdom, the new reality of those who, through baptism in the Spirit, “have been born to a new life” and are “new creatures” (see John 3:3-7; Romans 6:1-4).
At last, the three texts from John’s Gospel add new aspects about the Spirit and the role he plays in the life of believers. In 20:19-23, the somber fear of the disciples is transformed into luminous joy as soon as they hear Jesus’ greeting and see his wounds. It is after Jesus’ greeting: “Peace be with you,” words that reveal a new and deeper significance than they usual have, that Jesus breathes on them, gives them his Spirit, and sends them out with the commission of forgiving sins. In 15:26-27, Jesus announces the double testimony about himself that the Spirit of truth and the disciples will give. And, just in case the disciples are afraid of the mission entrusted to them, Jesus reassures them that it will be the Spirit (“of truth” once again) who will communicate to them what he has received from the Father and “guide them to all truth.” But only then, after Jesus has sent his Spirit, will they be able to bear the things that he still has to tell them.
We have followed a long way through the readings proposed by today’s liturgy. As you may see, Pentecost is much more than the end of the process begun on Ash Wednesday. It is a real trip along the history of salvation and a foreshadowing of the future that still lies ahead for the new-born Church. With all this biblical and theological material, what can I suggest? Any text can give rise to a good number of questions about our spiritual life and the role played by the Spirit in our lives. For example, a simple phrase from Paul, “living in the Spirit,” can be the starting point for a number of questions concerning all the realms of our Christian life. What can that style of life mean when dealing with the unity of the Church? How can we share our gifts (spiritual, of course, but economic and material, too)? How can we become witnesses to Jesus, his Gospel and the Kingdom of God? In communication, how can we overcome not only linguistic, but cultural, historical, national, ethnic, sexual and so many other barriers? How can we proclaim and put into practice a ministry of peace, forgiveness, reconciliation and mercy? That is just the beginning.
Pray for all of us who believe in Christ: that we may be ministers of God’s mercy and reconciliation to those who live under the burden of sin and guilt.
In many countries it is on these dates that the Week of Prayer for Christian unity is celebrated. Join your voice with theirs and pray that Jesus’ Spirit may help us to overcome the frontiers of division and misunderstanding.
Fix your attention on the Christian community where you live your faith, and look for signs of the Spirit’s presence. The text from Galatians 5:16-25 can help you as a point of reference. You can find there a synthesis of the two styles of life described by Paul. At the same time, look for the ways in which your docility to Jesus’ Spirit may contribute to the growth and maturity of your community.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón,Roman Catholic priest,Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain