When we listen again to the story of Pentecost as written by St. Luke, maybe the only trouble we can ponder is that of the lector getting all those names pronounced right. This is a trouble that afflicts the church ever since we moved away from places like Pamphylia and Phrygia and Cappadocia. Lectors do have a challenge on Pentecost Sunday. But it goes deeper than that list of foreign places.
See, that was at the core of the trouble at any Temple festival for devout Jews, this periodic crowding together of the people of God from far off into Jerusalem with its local Jewish population and religious establishment. Always trouble when the in-group has to tolerate the outsiders every time a Temple festival rolled around.
But now, a crowd of the outsiders has gathered and they’re not just bickering with the Jerusalem elite. Something has happened that has attracted a large gathering of folks and they are all upset at what they’re hearing. Actually, as St. Luke tells the story, they are “perplexed,” “amazed,” “confounded,” even derisive about those they are hearing. “Filled with new wine,” some growl. Makes you wonder what all the fuss is about for these pilgrims who have traveled so far to join in the Pentecost Temple festival. Whatever they expected, it certainly was not to be amazed on Pentecost.
So St. Luke tells us why this uproar is going on. The cause is, well, perplexing. These devout Jews from everywhere were hearing the followers of Jesus speak in their own languages! The speakers did not need to shift over to Greek or Latin to hear what they were proclaiming about the risen Lord. “Each one heard them speaking in his own tongue.” And we suddenly remember those names of foreign places—Pamphylia, Phrygia, Cappadocia—and we’re amazed at this polyglot assembly of curious outsiders. Amazed, too, at how many different languages were in the crowd. And this sudden miracle, this reversal of Babel, was the fruit of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to those who were “all in one place together.” They were filled with the Holy Spirit and in this place the church of Jesus Christ was being born. Noise of strong-driving wind, tongues of fire,…all signs of the Spirit working a new thing that would change the world.
What is happening this day is a startling new revelation to those who have received these tongues of fire. Suddenly an old pile of assumptions was just blown away by that strong driving wind. It was no longer necessary for anyone seeking God to first join the dominant culture and learn someone else’s language. So on one hand, every culture can be enriched by the proclamation of the gospel and the growth of the church in that distinctive place. On the other hand, that particular place in turn enriches the entire church with a rich diversity of gifts. Pope Francis addressed this interplay of the gospel and culture by saying that “the Church has a varied face…” (1) Francis adds, “What is needed is courageous openness to the novelty of the Spirit, who is always able to create something new with the inexhaustible riches of Jesus Christ.”(2)
At that first Pentecost, the people of Cappadocia discovered that they could hear the good news of Jesus Christ in their own language and through the distinct “flavor” of their own culture. What the new church rapidly learned was that the church in each place came to enrich the entire Body of Christ. We now treasure the great Teachers of the Cappadocian Church—St. Basil and the two “Gregories”—in their robust writings on the Holy Trinity and their enduring gifts to the shape of the liturgy. The same Pentecost miracle is now being lived out among the peoples of the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and even in our own parish. “Each heard them speaking in his own language.” The church has a varied face.
Once the gift of the Holy Spirit comes upon the church, we are compelled to preach the gospel. At that first Pentecost, Peter turned and filled with the Holy Spirit did precisely that. His preaching focused on what God has done in Jesus Christ, a ministry of “deeds of power, wonders, and signs,” his death on a cross. Peter then adds, “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). In response, those in the crowd, now hearing in their own tongue asked Peter, “What shall we do.” The Apostle’s reply was direct: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (38). Three thousand of the crowd came for baptism, their sins forgiven and the Holy Spirit now come among them. This baptismal liturgy must have taken some time, there being so many coming to the waters. But during our Easter Vigil just fifty days ago, Christ’s newest members of his Body came to the waters, were baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, sins forgiven and gifted by the Holy Spirit. [If there were no baptisms at the homilist’s parish at the Vigil this year, the alternative could be to refer to one of the recent Vigils in which the RCIA was fulfilled in Holy Baptism or locate this entire image in another parish church.] Pentecost is this kind of both historic and history-making event. The Spirit came upon the Apostles at that first Pentecost birthing Christ’s church. The Spirit comes at new “Pentecosts,” giving rebirth and new and eternal life. We are compelled to preach as did St. Peter. The gift of the Holy Spirit and preaching the gospel are woven together as a seamless garment of salvation.
Again and again the heart of this Feast becomes clear and vivid. We gather to celebrate that original birthing event of the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the Apostles on this Fiftieth Day. At the same time, we encounter more deeply the mystery that we are part of the event. This is our Fiftieth Day! In the Catholic and Orthodox icons of Pentecost, The Holy One is symbolized by a semi-circular mandala at the very top of the icon with rays descending to the Apostles now blessed with the tongues of fire. They sit in a half-circle that opens to the community that is praying the icon. There are two versions of the space at center between Saints Peter and Paul. In one tradition that space remains empty, a sign that after the Ascension, Christ’s invisible presence is among us and abides with us through the power of the Spirit. In the other tradition, Mary, our “God-Bearer,” sits at this place, her hands raised in prayer just as we see at every Mass as the bishop or priest offers the Great Thanksgiving. But in every icon of the “Descent of
the Holy Spirit” what is amazing, too, are the calm and peaceful faces and bodily postures of the Twelve. Each is distinct yet all are at peace. Amazing, isn’t it, that there is such peace in Christ’s church? Internally, no discord or dissension, but unity among these diverse saints. Externally, they remain calm through the soothing presence of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the world’s tumult, divisions, and anger. So once again, Pentecost is both a historic Feast to be celebrated and the present mystery of Christ’s church. How much more tumult, division, and anger could there be in this world of ours? How much more derision of those “not like ourselves”? And yet, the Spirit comes to us once again on this Fiftieth Day, bringing Christ’s Presence and comforting us with Blessed Mary’s own prayers. We become part of the event, this holy place an icon of the “Descent of the Holy Spirit.” Out there, yes, discord and violence, and the Spirit will lead us into the world as peacemakers and justice-doers. But the circle is completed among us and we who are many are one Body with the Lord, unafraid and profoundly blessed.
When the most High came down and confused the tongues,
He divided the nations;
But when he distributed the tongues of fire
He called all to unity.
Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-holy Spirit!
(Orthodox Pentecost Chant)
1 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father Francis, “Querida Amazonia”, 12.02.2020, 66, accessed May 12, 2021,https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2020/02/12/200212c.html.
2 Ibid., 69.