Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Acts of the Apostles. Here the apostles are gathered in a room when they experienced a powerful wind whose noise filled the room. Tongues of fire appeared and separated and came over each of those gathered. Filled with the Holy Spirit they began to speak in different languages. There were others gathered who were astonished to hear these apostles each speaking in the listener’s own language about the marvels of God. In John’s Gospel Jesus appeared to his disciples. He breathed on them and told them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.”
Last week we read about how Jesus left his apostles and, in a sense, left the world in their care. It was an act of supreme trust. Today we celebrate Pentecost, the event that happened directly after last week’s event. As Christians we celebrate this because the Holy Spirit came down among the apostles and gave them the power to forgive (or not) sins. Many of us grew up thinking that this gave priests the power to celebrate the sacrament of Confession. There is truth to this but the reality, as with many things in our faith, is much deeper and much stronger.
Our first reading from Acts begins with this statement: “When Pentecost day came round, the apostles had all met in one room…” In other words, Pentecost was not invented with this reading. They were gathered to celebrate a Jewish feast, the feast now known as Shavu’ot. Just as Easter day begins the season of Easter for us, the feast of Passover begins a season that goes on for fifty days, ending with Shavu’ot. Jews celebrated the fact that grain planted was a gift from God and they “gave back” a sheaf of that grain. For the apostles, and all Jews of that time, it was a time to recognize that everything they had came from God.
The feast of Shavu’ot, or Pentecost, took on an entirely new meaning on this day. Farmers will tell you that gratitude is not something to take for granted as they are at the mercy of many things beyond their control. Their livelihood depends on the condition of the soil, the amount of rain, and even the wind. Unexpected windstorms can wreak havoc on their ability to grow their crops. The apostles were gathered together when suddenly “they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting.” We can imagine that their first response would have been fear. Anyone who has seen the movie The Wizard of Oz knows how terrifying this can be.
But this wind was different. It brought another fearful affect: fire. But this fire did not destroy. Instead it separated and rested on the heads of each of them. And then it did something even more astounding. It allowed them to speak in different languages.
From our earliest days as humans we’ve spoken different languages and it’s divided us. In the 11th Chapter of Genesis we read that all people spoke the same language but they wickedly attempted to build a tower to reach to God; not wanting this, God confused them by creating different languages thereby making their building project impossible. I doubt any of us really believe this actually happened. I think we recognize that we, from our origins, spread around the earth before we developed language, and people in different areas developed different languages.
Regardless of that, by the time of Jesus people who didn’t live far from each other spoke different languages, and this made a difference in how the Bible was written. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the language spoken by the early Israelites. But it’s generally believed that while Jesus and his followers may have known Hebrew they spoke primarily Aramaic while their Roman conquerers spoke Latin and the New Testament was written in Greek. We don’t know how many languages the apostles spoke but those gathered were astonished that they all heard them in their own languages.
So what do we gather from this? When I was preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation (in 1973) I was told that Pentecost, like Confirmation, would give me extra powers, or graces. I saw this as almost like magic, that I would be able to do things I hadn’t been able to do. After Confirmation I found myself disappointed. My French class was no easier and I still didn’t understand Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. It didn’t seem that this did anything for me.
But in the decades since I’ve come to appreciate Pentecost in a new light. Now, when I think of Pentecost, I acquaint it with Jesus’ parable of the loaves and fishes. All four Gospels recount how Jesus fed a large crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we commonly think that Jesus made a “magic bag” that provided enough food for everyone. But I’ve suggested before that the miracle here wasn’t the magic bag, but that Jesus touched the hearts of those gathered to share with each other. Some had more than they needed and some had less and by pooling their resources all had enough.
In the same way I suspect that the miracle in today’s reading isn’t that the apostles were suddenly given magic powers to speak new languages, but that the power of the Holy Spirit gave them the desire to reach out to each other. Today, two thousand years after this event, we are still divided by languages. I live in San Diego and speak English. Until 1848 this was part of Mexico that was conquered by Spain and most people spoke Spanish. Before 1769 this area was primarily occupied by the Kumeyaay people who spoke Ipai. And yet we’re confronted by those, even today, who tell us that everyone should speak the same language and it should be “our” language and we should build a wall between “us” and “them.”
The gifts of the Holy Spirit that we celebrate on the feast of Pentecost should call us to reach out to each other. Maybe it calls us to learn a new language. Maybe it calls us to learn about the customs and values of people we don’t know well. We live in a divided world and it’s easy for us to retreat into our comfort zone, surrounded by those who make us feel safe. But when we hide behind xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, or other prejudices, we run afoul of what Pentecost can teach us. Just as the earliest apostles reached out in the earliest days of our church, so should we. We celebrate Pentecost best by welcoming the stranger, learning from them, and teaching them about us. We build the Kingdom of God not by waiting for the Holy Spirit to blow into our lives but by entering the lives of others.
Again and again God calls us to move out of the comfortable and into the holy. Can we do this? Espero que si.