Our first reading begins with the phrase: “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. A strong wind blew from the sky that filled their house, followed by tongues of fire, which parted and rested on each of them. Filled with the Holy Spirit they all spoke in different tongues as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” Devout Jews “from every nation under heaven [were] staying in Jerusalem.” They gathered into a large group and were amazed to see that while they were all from different places and spoke different languages, they could all understand each other. John’s Gospel gives us another experience of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the apostles. Jesus said this: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He then breathed on them and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
I may be mistaken in this, but I suspect most Christians look at major feast days and believe that these are easy homilies because they practically write themselves. That may be true with some homilists, but I have to confess that these feasts drive me crazy. Maybe this says something about me, but I struggle every year to find something new, something that does not retell the same, old, tired story.
I put Pentecost in this category. The optics from Acts are clear: they were all in a house when the wind picked up. Those of us (of a certain age) who live in the United States immediately go to the opening scene of the iconic movie The Wizard of Oz. Those who live in deserts immediately go to sandstorms that call them to shelter in place for a few days and cause nothing but misery.
Whatever the case for Jesus’ apostles, this wind clearly caught their attention. But nobody expected what came next: tongues of fire. From our earliest days we’ve been taught to fear fire because fire burns. But much like the burning bush that Moses experienced in Exodus, this fire gave life instead of destroying it. In fact, this fire didn’t burn them but instead empowered them. This fire gave them the ability to understand what was previously nonsense: other languages.
Of the stories from Genesis, I’ve always been fascinated by one event that most overlook: the Tower of Babel. Shortly after Noah’s Ark the people decided to build a great city with “a tower with its top in the sky.” In other words they wanted to build a tower to Heaven. God, not wanting this to happen, gave each of them a different language to subvert their plans. Now they would not be able to build anything because they could not understand each other. They talked past each other and couldn’t understand why their words didn’t drive the decision (while the words of others sounded like nonsense). Many an hour I’ve sat in parish council meetings with a deep understanding of this event.
And now, perhaps, God chose to reverse what was done in Babel. Does this reading tell us that God no longer wants us to be separate and unintelligible? Now that God sent Jesus to dwell among us and save us can we now be trusted with a common language?
That would be nice, but I hate to point out that this event in Acts was only temporary. At some point we all returned to different languages. I live 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the international border between the United States and Mexico and that border has become, in the last few years, a cause of great division. And while many on either side speak both languages, many of us don’t.
Some of us see this as a source of embarrassment, but others take a more strident view. I know several people who demand that there be no Spanish billboards or advertising here. They complain that they “don’t know what is being said” and hint darkly of a hidden agenda. My response is this: “If you don’t like seeing billboards that you can’t read, learn that language.” OK, this has not been universally accepted.
But I think John’s Gospel makes my point. Here Jesus appears to his apostles (again through locked doors) and breathes on them. But he tells them something astounding: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins your forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Catholics of my age and older saw this reading narrowly. We were taught it meant that priests had the power to forgive sins in the Sacrament of Confession. But it also meant that if the priest didn’t feel the penitent was sufficiently remorseful he could withhold forgiveness. Legions of Catholics lived in fear of not “sounding” remorseful enough and not being forgiven, and I’ve actually heard stories from Catholics who were not forgiven by priests who didn’t believe them. I can only imagine their pain.
Fortunately I think most of us who read this Gospel today recognize that forgiving sins rests not just with priests, but with all of us. Because while we are all sinners, we are all targets of someone else’s sin. We all have the power to forgive.
But sometimes forgiveness requires us to understand why we were hurt. Forgiveness is easy when someone cuts us off in traffic. But it’s not easy for those raised by a parent who struggled with mental illness or addiction. It’s not easy to forgive an abusive spouse or an office bully. Complex forgiveness demands that we understand the circumstances of the sin. It means we need to understand the background (and the language) of the person who harmed us.
A few years ago I had a conversation with three women who were dealing with the death of their father. They missed him, but they struggled with how strict, demanding, and frankly verbally abusive he was when they were teenagers. As they described him I began to see this man far differently from their painful memories. He was a single father in the 1950s and 1960s (his wife and their mother died young).
While they saw a man who never trusted them, especially around boys, I saw a father who was thrust into a role where he felt utterly unqualified. While they saw a merciless judge, I saw a man who lived in a time when parents were judged by the behavior of their children. While they saw that they lacked someone who could navigate them through their first training bra and their first period, I saw a man who was terrified that if one of them became pregnant, she (and he) would be ostracized by their neighborhood and church. While they saw a harsh taskmaster, I saw a man who forced them to rely on each other.
And now, decades later, they struggled to see his role in their lives as 50 somethings who had achieved great success of their lives. They went on to marry good men and raise joyful children. In the course of that afternoon they worked hard to translate their stories from “I am who I am despite my father” to “I am who I am in large part because of my father.”
Their ability to forgive pivoted on their decision to learn their father’s language. The appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost lived on in their lives and it made all the difference in palliating their pain and guilt.
Our call to forgive often calls us beyond what we believe we can do. And in truth, learning another language exhausts us. But it’s a good exhaustion. At the end of the day forgiveness releases not only the one we forgive, but ourselves also. The relief I observed with these three women continues to enrich their lives (and mine too).