As the 50 days of celebrating Christ’s Resurrection comes to a close this weekend, another new beginning bursts forth powerfully into our lives: the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost recalls and makes present in our lives the advent of the Spirit, which empowered the followers of Christ to proclaim the gospel message and carry it throughout the world. Reminiscent of the confusion of the tongues at the tower of Babel, the Spirit restores God’s order at Pentecost by empowering the Apostles to communicate the Good News of God’s salvation to all without the hindrance of language barriers. Truly, the Spirit demonstrates God’s power to teach and communicate to all. Pentecost invites us to consider the movement of the Spirit in our own lives as well: in Baptism and Confirmation we have welcomed the Spirit, who continues to vivify the Christian life, thus enabling us to proclaim the Good News today.
Two sets of readings are prescribed in the Lectionary for the Solemnity.
At the Vigil: The Lectionary provides four optional First Readings for the Vigil Mass of Pentecost.
With the reading from the Book of Genesis, this is the first time since the Easter Vigil that we have heard a text from the Old Testament. The Church’s liturgy during Easter focuses our attention on the unfolding store of the power of Christ’s Resurrection. As we come to the end of Easter Time, the readings take us back to primeval salvation history. In Hebrew rhetoric, an author repeats a word or phrase for the sake of emphasis. Though slightly unclear in the English translation of this passage from Genesis, the Hebrew word for 'language’ or ’speech’ recurs five times, and of those, the phrase, ‘the same language’ appears twice. Language, which had been the fundamental means of communication and communion, has become a source of confusion and disunity.
Psalm 104 is a hymn recounting the wondrous works of God and the wisdom with which God has ordered creation in harmony and goodness. The opening phrase, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul!’ is a powerful expression of praise. The Hebrew word for soul, nefesh, refers to that part of the human person which sustains life and vitality, the life force within an individual. Here the psalmist is calling to his own inner being, that which gives and sustains his life, to lift up praise to God. The first three stanzas of the Responsorial Psalm give the psalmist’s reasons for giving voice to this praise. The last stanza twice employs the word ‘spirit,’ in Hebrew, ruah. This word can variously refer to one’s breath, the wind, or the spirit. In the Hebrew imagination, both human breath and the wind were mysterious things. In Genesis 1:2, a mighty ‘wind’ swept over the chaotic waters. In Genesis 2:7, the Lord God blew ‘breath’ into a mass of earth and it became a living being, Adam. Likewise in this verse, when God sends forth ‘spirit,’ things are created and the face of the earth is renewed. Such images from the Old Testament serve as a prelude to the act of new creation by which Jesus sends His Spirit upon Mary and the Twelve, and the people in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost.
Saint Paul writes about the human condition, specifically, our fragility and weakness in the lifelong process of growth into Christ. Yet as Jesus promised, He has not left us orphans. He has given us the Holy Spirit as the pledge of His presence, as a helper in time of distress, and as a guide to live faithfully as His disciples. This same Holy Sprit teaches us to pray, even when we feel our prayer to be inadequate. Saint Paul speaks of the Spirit who ‘intercedes with inexpressible groanings’ within us. Paul is here referring to that ache we experience in prayer when we cannot even find words to wrap around what we know we should pray for, yet the feeling stays within us, almost haunting us. That is the Spirit praying in us, leading us to intercession, to praise, to gratitude, and to whatever might draw us into that intimate communion with God that is true prayer. Such a gift is reason for great hope and comfort.
The very short Gospel of the Vigil Mass is packed with meaning appropriate to our celebration of Pentecost. ‘The last and greatest day of the feast’ refers to the last day of the festival of Tabernacles, or Sukkoth in Hebrew. The feast commemorated the wandering of the Hebrew people in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. It also eventually came to be associated with the end-of-the-year gathering in of the harvest. It was marked by seven days of grateful rejoicing for God’s abundant goodness to them. So when Jesus exclaims, ‘Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink, he is asserting that he has something far greater than what is being celebrated during these festive days. A new harvest of grace is to be received by those who believe. Jesus’ words about ‘rivers of living water’ can be understood as a reference to Baptism, that initial sacrament which imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is worthwhile to meditate on how the evangelist John has placed the Bread of Life discourse immediately adjacent to this chapter on Baptism and the Holy Spirit.
Mass During the Day: Pentecost was one of the three pilgrimage feasts of the Jews, when all who were able came to the Temple in Jerusalem; thus, the presence of so many foreigners in Jerusalem that day. ‘All’ the disciples were gathered in one place. Acts of the Apostles 1;13-14 identifies these disciples as the Eleven, Mary the Mother of Jesus, the women who journeyed with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, and his relatives. The cosmic sign of the strong driving wind attracted the crowd. (In Greek, the same word is used for both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit.’). Note also the sign of ‘fire.’ The fruit of the Spirit’s presence and work is the disciples’ ability to proclaim the Gospel in various tongues and be understood by those who hear them.
Psalm 104 is used again, along with the same antiphon as at the Vigil Mass. There is some variation in the stanzas. Today’s addition in the last stanza voices the desire that both God’s glory and God’s joy in His creation endure. The psalmist is intent on being ‘pleasing’ to the Lord and finding joy in Him. A beautiful theme for each of our lives, as well.
Paul make a sharp contrast between living according to the flesh (by worldly standards) and living according to the Spirit, the gift of God’s presence, life and power within us, received at Baptism. The Second Reading notes that this is the same Spirit, the same Power, that raised Jesus from the dead. That’s powerful power! The Spirit within us also prays within us, as it gently leads us back to our God. The Aramaic word Abba is best rendered as ‘Daddy’ How intimately God has united us to Himself.
Twice in today’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is referred to as an ‘Advocate.’ The Greek word parakletos means ‘one who intercedes or acts for the good of another.’ In other words, God’s Holy Spirit continues Jesus’ work on our behalf, the work of bringing us the fullness of life. Our job is to listen to the words spoken by God and obey them.