Today is Pentecost. The term means “50th day” and is celebrated 50 days after Easter. The festival has Old Testament origins in a feast that celebrated the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Christian celebration of Pentecost has further meaning because while the disciples of Jesus were gathered to celebrate the feast of Pentecost they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts of the Apostles recalls the Pentecost event. St. Luke, author of Acts of the Apostles, tells the story. The disciples had gathered together in one place. A noise “like a strong driving wind” fills the house where they were located. As we read this account very early on we realize something significant is happening. The “noise” created by the strong wind is a theophany. In the Old Testament many times strong natural occurrences (for example earthquakes, wind, storm, etc.) and sometimes supra-natural events (for example the burning bush, pillar of cloud or fire) mark the presence of the divine. God is present there in that room with the disciples of Jesus.
After this come the “tongues as of fire.” The “tongues” come from one source but rest on each disciple. Thus the relationship among members of the nascent church is based on a union with each other in Christ Jesus. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by these “tongues as of fire,” unites the disciples as one. As the disciples receive the Holy Spirit they begin to speak in “different tongues” or different languages “as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” The disciples proclaim the Gospel and in a particular way the death and resurrection of Christ as we will see from this point forward in Acts of the Apostles.
Since the Feast of Pentecost was already an important pilgrimage feast for Jews, there were many Jews present in Jerusalem from different parts of the then-known world. Later in the account they identify themselves: “We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.”
When the disciples begin the gospel proclamation (not in the sense of the written gospel for it was not yet written but “gospel” in the sense of everything that has to do with Jesus the Christ) people from diverse lands with different languages all hear the one gospel proclaimed.
The Pentecost event is presented as an antidote to the Babel story in Genesis. You may recall the story of the Tower of Babel. The story is used in Genesis to explain the many languages on the earth. The story begins with people migrating from the east. The people decide that they “want to make a name” (Genesis 11:4a) for themselves saying “otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth” (Genesis 11:4b). So they started to build a tower of brick and mortar. The story is laden with symbolism.
At the basis of this is that the people are trying to become gods by seeking to make a name for themselves (as opposed to taking a name by the Almighty). Remember that in the ancient mindset “naming” something entailed ownership or authority. The tower becomes symbolic that it reaches into the sky — toward the heavens. The desire of the people to reach the realm of the divine on their own is problematic. Rather than humbly receiving an invitation or a gift from the divine they seek to grasp and take control. They are full of hubris.
With this in mind, we can understand the Lord’s reaction when he sees the tower. His authority and power is not to be attained through the will of men so he says: “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another.” As a result, the people could not communicate with each other, they stop building the tower and many are scattered to different locations on the Earth.
Genesis calls the city “Babel.” While the original use of the name was associated with “Babylon,” some scholars suggest the term eventually came into the English language with the connotation of “making no sense,” for example when a child is learning to speak they say he or she is “babbling.” When applied to an adult it means “foolish or meaningless chatter.” Regardless of its later application, “Babel” represents the failed attempt of mankind to become divine and the subsequent disunity among human beings symbolized by diverse languages.
Pentecost is the antidote for Babel. The “tongues of fire” coming from one source symbolize the unity provided by the Holy Spirit dwelling among the disciples. The common proclamation albeit in different languages further emphasize the union established in the Spirit. People can understand the one message and come to faith through the proclamation.
St. Paul writes of this reality in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit enables the proclamation. While the Genesis story demonstrates the inability of mankind, on its own accord, to become sharers in the divine life, the Pentecost event accomplishes this end through the gift of God through Christ Jesus. Those who were once scattered and divided are now one with God and with each other.
Saint Paul further elaborates on this unity amid diversity writing: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings of the same God who produces all of them in everyone.” He uses the familiar image of the body with many parts to illustrate the union. “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of the one Spirit.”
Thus Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the church. The gift of the Spirit unites us in Jesus as one Body of Christ. Each member has an important but different role in offering praise to God in both word and deed. Likewise, each member has an important role in the proclamation of the Gospel in both word and deed.
Pentecost fulfills Jesus’ promise of his abiding presence. He dwells in the church through the Holy Spirit. The healing accomplished through his passion, death and resurrection is now proclaimed to all peoples. All are invited to share in the life that has been accomplished through the one perfect sacrifice.
The Gospel account for today’s liturgy is one of the resurrection accounts. Here Jesus appears on the “first day of the week.” The disciples are gathered in a locked room for they are full of fear. Jesus enters their company despite the locked doors. His first words to them are “Peace be with you.” The peace he offers is accomplished through his passion, death and resurrection.
Mankind broken by sin and death is now restored to life through Jesus, hence he offers his greeting of “peace.” Pentecost confirms that peace and the unity it establishes. We now continue the proclamation, inviting all to share in the life and communion that Jesus establishes.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.