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Viewing the Church through the Lenses of Pentecost

May 29, 2017
Solemnity of Pentecost - Sunday, June 4th, 2017
Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter that signals the start of the universal mission of the Church – a mission that overcomes human obstacles and has the Spirit as its driving force. The mighty breath of God and the fire of the Spirit’s presence engulf the group of disciples gathered in prayer around Mary, Mother of the Lord, in the Upper Room.
Luke’s narrative of Pentecost in Acts contains today’s first reading (2:1-11) and consists of: an introduction (2:1-13), a speech ascribed to Peter declaring the Resurrection of Jesus and its Messianic significance (2:14-36), and a favourable response from the audience (2:37-41). The Twelve were not originally in a position to proclaim publicly the Messianic office of Jesus without incurring immediate reprisal from those religious authorities in Jerusalem who had brought about Jesus’ death precisely to stem the rising tide in his favour.
Paul’s theology of charisms
In today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13), St. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that the different gifts of the Holy Spirit are given for a purpose: a service to be offered for the good of all. They are not ends in themselves. Christians are called to establish a unity that brings together in Jesus Christ all peoples, religions, and states of life.
Ecstatic and charismatic activity were common in early Christian experience, as they were in other ancient religions. But the Corinthians seemed to have developed a disproportionate esteem for certain phenomena, especially tongues, to the detriment of order in the liturgy. Paul reminds the Corinthians that ecstatic phenomena must be judged by their effect. Power to confess Jesus as Lord can come only from the Spirit, and it is inconceivable that the Spirit would move anyone to curse the Lord. We learn that there are some features common to all charisms, despite their diversity: all are gifts (charismata), graces from outside ourselves; all are forms of service (diakoniai), an expression of their purpose and effect; and all are workings (energemata), in which God himself is at work. Paul associates each of these aspects with what later theology will call one of the persons of the Trinity, an early example of “appropriation.”
The image of a body (12:12-26) is introduced to explain Christ’s relationship with believers. Paul applies this model to the Church: by baptism all, despite diversity of ethnic or social origins, are integrated into one organism. The reading then develops the need for diversity of function among the parts of a body without threat to its unity.
He breathed on them
The Gospel of John (19:20-23) describes another way the Holy Spirit is given to the apostles: the Risen Jesus breathing on the apostles to impart the Holy Spirit. The power of the Spirit not only authorizes, but also empowers the apostles to forgive and to retain sins. Jesus formally sends out his apostles to the world, as he had been sent to the world by the Father. Jesus’ breathing on the apostles huddled in the Upper Room recalls Genesis 2:7, where God breathed on the first man and gave him life; just as Adam’s life came from God, so now the disciples’ new spiritual life comes from Jesus.
In a similar vein, today’s Psalm 104 reminds us that the Holy Spirit, this breath of God that we as Christians have received, is the same Spirit that sustains the constant renewal of all created things.
The lenses of Pentecost
In my work at Salt and Light Television Network in Canada, I have had to quickly learn about broadcast technology, and all that goes into making a good film. One important aspect of television is the intricate camera work “behind the scenes.” The close up and wide-angle camera shots make all the difference in filming and telling a story. If we use too many close-ups, we lose sight of the bigger picture. If we overuse the wide-angle lens without attention to the particulars, it doesn’t make for good television. Good television combines the wide-angle or panoramic shots, the intermediate views of the surface, and finally the close-ups that offer attention to detail and often provide necessary depth for understanding the whole picture.
I would like to offer three lenses through which we might consider this feast: 1) the wide-angle lens that looks at our belonging to the Church; 2) an intermediate lens that focuses in on the ideologies at work in the Church today; and 3) a zoom lens to sharpen our hope, the great manifestation of the Holy Spirit to the Church.
“Sentire cum ecclesia”
Pentecost is considered to be the birth of the Church. Our baptismal consecration in service to Christ cannot be separated from consecration in service to the Church. One of the main themes permeating the thought of St. Ignatius of Loyola is his exhortation Sentire cum ecclesia or “think with the Church.” Sentire cum ecclesia also means to feel with the Church and to love the Church. Pentecost invites us once again to walk with the Church, breathe with the Church, hope with the Church, feel with the Church: Sentire cum ecclesia. What does the Church mean for me as an individual? What is my personal relationship with the Church? Do I love the Church? Do I feel loved by the Church?
Moving Beyond Ideology
From the wide-angle view of the Church, let us take a closer look at our current ecclesial reality. Today, some of us seem to be stuck in the ideological battles that followed the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps we are frozen in categories of left and right; traditional vs. avant-garde; male vs. female; hierarchical vs. lay-led; or prophetic vs. static. Our inter-ecclesial and inter-community fixations and polarizations on all sides of the ecclesial spectrum can distract us from addressing with requisite depth and discernment the issues facing us today. Whatever is not purified and transformed within us is transmitted to others – especially to the next generation. When we sell ourselves to cynicism and despair, meanness of heart, smallness of spirit, and harshness in ecclesial discourse, we betray our deepest identity as bearers of joy, hope, and truth. Is joy present in our Christian witness? What prevents me as an individual and us as a community from giving a robust, joyful witness to Jesus Christ, the Catholic faith, and the Church?
Hope: a manifestation of the Spirit
Finally, let us zoom in on hope, a true manifestation of the Spirit at Pentecost. Is it not true that for the past few years, many of us in the Church have felt like we are frequently caught in a flash flood that is unexpected, powerful, destructive, and filled with despair? The flame seems to have gone out and our influence was terribly diminished. The flash flood bears down with immense force on all of us. Some can easily view our present situation with great pessimism and grow disheartened, depressed, and even cynical. But so much of that mood has changed drastically since the night of March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis first appeared on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. Many have said that the Cardinal who came “from the ends of the earth” in Buenos Aires ushered into the Church the new Pentecost of which Pope John XXIII spoke so beautifully when he convened the Second Vatican Council over 50 years ago. For the world of sound bites, hope usually means that we make ourselves believe that everything is going to turn out all right. We use the word hope lightly and cheaply. This is not the hope of Christians. We must be icons of hope, a people with a new vision, a people that learn to see the world through the lenses of Christ, the Spirit, and the Church.
Signs of the times and signs of hope
The Second Vatican Council encouraged Christians to read the signs of the times, and for Pope John XXIII these were signs of hope and glimpses of the Kingdom’s presence in our midst. It is not a kingdom of this world, so that it cannot be identified specifically in this or that location, but it is nevertheless here already fostered by the Eucharist, which is the pattern to be reproduced in all society, as well as still to come. The Kingdom manifests itself through the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. And the Spirit’s fruits make the Kingdom palpable and palatable: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long-suffering, mildness, faith, modesty, continence, and chastity.
It is also possible to follow a via negativa and to say where the Kingdom is not. Where there is no justice, no peace, no sharing, no mutual trust, no forgiveness – there is no Kingdom. Where there is rancour, envy, distrust, hatred, ignorance, indifference, unchastity, and cynicism – there is no Kingdom and certainly no life.
“Duc in altum!”
We cannot weigh the life of faith and judge the vitality of the Church solely on the basis of demographical or sociological indicators, numbers, polls, and outside statistics, as helpful as they may be. The fire of Pentecost invites us to rediscover the depth, beauty and vastness of the Church’s mission. What is required of those imagining and building the Church is to think big, and to cast our nets into the deep. “Duc in altum!” We must shape our vision on our firm conviction in the victory of the Cross and in Jesus Christ’s triumph over sin and death. Individuals and communities without vision and a Church without a mission are like a person without relationships. Unless we are able to go beyond ourselves, we will remain undeveloped personalities. When the Spirit truly dwells within us, we will be blessed anew with creativity, imagination, and hope.
Guarantee of the Spirit’s presence
What is the deepest and surest assurance and intimation that the Holy Spirit is present in our world and Church today? The answer is: joy. If there is joy present you can bet that the Holy Spirit has something to do with this precious gift. St. Augustine, who was the most musically passionate of the Fathers of the Church, memorably evokes the experience of this joy with these words (Exposition of Psalm 32, Sermon 1, 7-8):
Whenever people must labour hard they begin with songs whose words express their joy. But when joy brims over and words are not enough they abandon even this coherence and give themselves to the sheer sound of singing. What is this jubilation? What is this exultant song? It is the melody that means our hearts are bursting with feelings that cannot express themselves. And to whom does this jubilation most surely belong? Truly to God who is unutterable, if words will not come and may not remain silent what else can you do but let the melody soar? This is the song of the Holy Spirit.
On this great feast of the birth of the Church, let us ponder anew the whole reality of the Church: from the wide-angle view of its vastness and beauty, to the sometimes turbulent and complex surface, zooming in finally on hope, one of the deepest manifestations of the Spirit alive in the Church. In doing so, we can marvel once again at the mercy and generosity of God and give thanks to the Lord who continues to call us to fidelity and joy.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful,
and reignite in us the fire of your Love!
Make us joyful witnesses to your hope in the Church!
Move us beyond our ideologies that divide and blind us.
Lord, send us your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth...
The face of our Church, the face of our local communities,
our own faces, our own hearts. Amen.
[The readings for Pentecost are: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; and John 20:19-23.]
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