Conrad Pepler O.P. Pentecost Sunday
Acts, c 2 vv 1-1 1; I Cor, c 1 2 vv 3-7, 12-13; John, c 20 vv 1923.
TODAY is the birthday of the Church of Christ Jesus. Up to this time the Church had been in embryo, gradually developing all her faculties and potentialities through the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Now the whole Church can pour out on the world, having grown beyond a devout band of followers of Jesus, uncertain of its make-up, of its mission or of its powers.
On the day of Pentecost the Church discovered her identity. As the Books of Christ the Church reveals the Spirit of Christ. This experience of the Spirit was characteristic of the early Church, as Father, Son, and Spirit appeared, to work in the lives, action and words of Christians.
As the centuries followed one another laying out the pattern of the history of the Church the experience and manifestation of
the Spirit seemed to decrease as an integral part of that pattern, until in the 20th Century Christians seem to have become aware that an essential part of their life had been obscured. They turn to the accounts of h life of the early Church and discover the Spirit. Thus the Holy Spirit has become characteristic of the Christian way of life.
An explanation of the 'disappearance' of the Spirit from the daily life of the ordinary Christian would seem to be linked to the development of heresies and heretical churches.
Heresy threatened the truth of the Word in whom the Church existed, so that inevitably she must become protective to defend her children from attack. The unsullied purity of the faith must be preserved from error. Christians must be protected from the blandishments of untruth. Barricades have to be erected and the invading forces of error are viewed across these defences as enemies. As the element of fear begins to dominate, the truth does not always seem to have made free those who defend it.
The Christian can thus find himself in a Pre-Pentecost era. He turns to our Lord for reassurance — 'To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life'. At that time our Lord was himself on occasion hiding from the Jews as his time had not yet come. Even after the desolation of Calvary and the new assurance of the Resurrection there still remained the threat of the Jews' now that the doors had to be kept closed.
Parallels with this state of affairs appear throughout the history of the Church, particularly at the time of the Reformation when the faithful seemed to be surrounded by enemies. While the fortifications were strengthened by anathema after anathema the faithful took refuge before the tabernacle, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament became a characteristic devotion. Of course the Spirit of Christ was present throughout these periods, but it was the Real Presence, the externals of the sacraments, and the clearly defined structure of the Church that could be more easily grasped as defensive weapons.
This picture is something of an exaggeration, but its elements can be found in the readings for Pentecost Sunday. After the Resurrection the disciples had assembled behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. Presumably the\ were thus assembled after the Ascension. praying and waiting. when the rush of the
wind was heard and the tongues of fire appeared over each one. All the dross of uncertainty and fear was burnt away in the instant, and they stepped out into the o en before the world so su en y gat ere 1.(-,re Them. Their 'tongues' — Luke uses the same word for the tongues of flame and the tongues of speech — were loosed and the flaming words of the Spirit came pouring out. Significantly the feast of Pentecost for which these devout men from every nation had assembled was the feast of the giving of the Law on Sinai.
Paul writing to the Corinthians elaborates the meaning of this astounding scene. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (R.S.V.) Each of the disciples speaks in a different language to the various nationals, but the message is one. There had been one flame which had broken into many tongues and now the many tongues were bringing all back to the one Spirit. "The variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit" — Paul names some of these gifts (unfortunately omitted from the reading) — wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, interpretation of tongues.
Isaiah (c.11) gives another list of seven gifts which have become part of Christian tradition in which 'fortitude' appears. We can say that this is the Spirit of courage, shown by the disciples whose fear had been burned away in the flames. Fear includes not merely running away from violence, but all those selfcentred reactions such as selfrespect and embarrassment which prevent one from speaking the truth fiercely and to effect. The flame burns up all the dross of self and sin, so that the Spirit may work freely.
All this may be seen in terms of 'Renewal' in the Spirit of the Church and the presence of the successor. of Peter, so often described on the Charismatic Pope.