Scripture and the Liturgy

Pentecost Day

Did you know? My commentaries are now available in book form! Year B is here. Solemnities and Feasts is here.

Now let’s turn to the Readings for Pentecost Sunday Mass during the Day.

The First Reading is, finally, the account of Pentecost itself, from Acts 2:1-11:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.”

We have already remarked on the intimate relationship between this event and Babel in Genesis 10-11 (Pentecost is the Un-Babel) and Sinai in Exodus 19-20 (Pentecost is the giving of the New Law of the New Covenant).  It is important to note that the congregation gathered around the apostles comes not only from a wide variety of nations of the earth, but also consists of “Jews and converts to Judaism.”  In other words, there are both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles here: those who hear the apostles are truly a representative cross-section of humanity.

It is unfortunate, though understandable, that the rest of Acts 2 is not read for this Mass.  A reading of the rest of the chapter should be obligatory for every homilist or teacher and would allow the following points to be made: (1) the close association of the giving of the Spirit with the ministry of Peter, the spokesman to and for the Body of Christ.  One of the goals of the Church is the reunification of the human family.  Denominationalism and nationalism among non-Catholic Christians defeats this goal.  Like him or not, the successor of Peter remains the central figure of world Christianity.  All Catholics are united in their fidelity to him, and the only thing that unites all non-Catholics is their opposition to him.  Thus he is the great unifier.  See this article by Protestant theologian Stephen Long.  (2) The close association of the giving of the Spirit with baptism, and by extension the sacramental ministry of the Church: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). (3) The correlation of the worship of the early Church and Mass: “And they devoted themselves to (1) the apostles’ teaching and (2) fellowship, to the (3) breaking of bread and the (4) prayers (Acts 2:42).”  This is a perennial description of the life of the Church. We see all these same elements in the Mass, respectively, in (1) the readings and homily, the (2) passing of the peace, (3) the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and (4) the Collect and the Eucharistic Prayer.  St. Luke records the life of the early Church in such a way that we can recognize our continuity with them, because we are the same Body extended in time.

The Responsorial Psalm is the same as that for the Vigil.  See my comments on the vigil above. 

The Second Reading (1 Cor 12:3-13) raises several interesting points:

Brothers and sisters:
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.

As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

St. Paul says, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord?”  Remember that Jews like Paul did not pronounce the divine name (YHWH) but substituted adonai in Hebrew and kurios, “Lord,” in Greek.  The fullest sense of proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” is to identify him with the God of Israel who revealed himself to Moses.  That is, saying “Jesus is Lord” is the same as recognizing his divinity.  For someone to recognize that Jesus is God, requires the work of the Holy Spirit.

Further, Paul’s statement that “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit,” reminds us that Pentecost, while a extraordinary event, is not the first bestowal of the Spirit on mankind.  The Spirit has been active since Creation.  Particularly, a careful reading of the infancy narratives of Luke 1-2, to mention just one example, shows how active the Spirit was even before the earthly ministry of Christ.  St. Paul’s statement implies that the Spirit was already active in some way upon certain individuals who confessed Jesus as Lord in the Gospel narratives (e.g. Matt 15:22, John 20:18,28).

The other option for the second reading is Gal 5:16-25:

Brothers and sisters, live by the Spirit
and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh.
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit,
and the Spirit against the flesh;
these are opposed to each other,
so that you may not do what you want.
But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious:
immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry,
sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy,
outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness,
dissensions, factions, occasions of envy,
drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.
I warn you, as I warned you before,
that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Against such there is no law.
Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh
with its passions and desires.
If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.

This passage discusses the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control);  whereas 1 Cor 12:3-13 discussed the gifts of the Spirit. 

The fruits are virtues enabled by the Spirit; the gifts are abilities or empowerments for service within the body of Christ. 

In some movements within the Church that pay special attention to the operation of the Spirit (e.g. “Pentecostal” or “Charismatic” communities) there can be a great deal of emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, particularly speaking in tongues.  There’s no biblical reason to object to speaking in tongues or other gifts of the Spirit, nor is there any biblical proof that these manifestations have “died out” with the apostles. 

Nonetheless, there is also no good reason to think that the gifts rather than the fruits are a better indication that one has the Spirit!  Quite the contrary!  Observe how St. Paul and Our Lord stress the importance of the fruits of the Spirit as better signs of one’s salvation than the gifts of the Spirit:

1Cor. 13:1   If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Matt. 7:21   “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’

The point is, both the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit are important and necessary for building up the body of Christ.  Let’s seek them both.

This is an important point to make in relation to the Gospel Reading (John 20:19-23), which is John’s record of the initial bestowal of the Spirit on the Apostles:

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Sometimes this passage is called the “Johannine Pentecost,” but it would be incorrect to pit these two events against one another, as if John was of the opinion that the Spirit was given at one time, and Luke of the opinion that it was dispensed at another.  In the Christian life, there are certainly definitive giftings of the Spirit (for example, in Baptism and Confirmation), but the Spirit comes to us continually, not just once.

In fact, Luke does record the same event we find detailed in today’s Gospel Reading, although the fact is frequently missed.  In Luke 24:49 Jesus says,

“Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you.” 

The Greek is present tense:  Jesus is giving the Spirit as he speaks, which is the event recorded in John 20.  The rest of Luke 24:49 says, “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from high.”  So Pentecost is not the first time the Apostles receive the Spirit.  Rather, it is a special dispensation, a “clothing with power from on high.”  We should understand it as an extraordinary empowerment with gifts and charisms that they will need for their apostolic ministry.  As the Second Reading emphasized, there are many gifts and forms of ministry inspired by the same Spirit.

Finally, the Gospel Reading emphasizes the coordination of the ministry of the Spirit with the ministry of the Apostles.  John makes the same point as Luke, a point we have remarked on in previous posts.  The Spirit works through the Apostles and their successors.  There is not, and should not be, a division between the “charismatic” and “hierarchical” Church.  Of course, when the Church’s officers resist the Holy Spirit, or don’t manifest the “fruit,” it is a sore trial of faith for the rest of the body, but the answer then is prayer and fasting (Matt 17:21), not schism.

The gift of the Spirit in John 20 constitutes the beginning of two sacraments: Holy Orders and Reconciliation.  The ministry of forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament was mediated through the priesthood, as one can see in Leviticus 5:10 and many similar passages.  In John 20 Jesus grants the Apostles the essentially priestly authority to mediate forgiveness: “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained.”  This emphasizes the purpose for which the Spirit is given: that our sins may be forgiven. 

Because it seems to be an obvious Scriptural basis for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, John Calvin (who rejected that sacrament) struggled to interpret this verse and ended up arguing that the “forgiveness of sins” referred to the apostles’ preaching.  Through preaching sins were forgiven or retained; not by hearing the sins of believers and making a judgment to absolve or retain (i.e. Reconciliation). 

But one can see that Calvin’s interpretation is certainly not the obvious meaning of the text.   There’s no mention of preaching here. Perhaps if the entire Church had always understood the verse that way, one could accept it as its meaning. But of course, that’s not the Church’s tradition either.  Like many other passages of Scripture, this was one in which Calvin could not actually live by the principle of “sola scriptura.” 

When talking with other Christians, Catholics should remember that it is most certainly not a question of “them” taking the Bible “literally,” and “us” taking the Bible “figuratively.”  Both Catholics and non-catholics use figurative and literal interpretation strategies.  The differences between Catholics and other Christians revolve around which passages are to be taken in one way or the other.

As a Protestant pastor I never even noticed John 20:23; but now I love this verse as an assurance that those vested with the leadership of the Church have been granted by Jesus himself the authority to remit sins.  I’m not left to battle with my own subjective judgments on my own behavior, which are invariably self-justifying and biased, but I can state reality before the man on whom hands have been laid, and objectively, tangibly hear the voice of the Spirit: “I absolve you …”

The alternate Gospel of Year B for Pentecost is taken from Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse (John 15:26-27; 16:12-15):

Jesus said to his disciples:
“When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father,
he will testify to me.
And you also testify,
because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth,
he will guide you to all truth.
He will not speak on his own,
but he will speak what he hears,
and will declare to you the things that are coming.
He will glorify me,
because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.
Everything that the Father has is mine;
for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine
and declare it to you.”

The Last Supper Discourse (John 13-17) contains the largest section of Jesus’ teachings on the Holy Spirit in any of the Gospels, so the Church has been reading from this unit quite heavily during Easter, especially as the weeks draw near to Pentecost.

There are several observations that we can make about this passage. 

First of all, the Spirit that Christ sends to us is the “Spirit of truth.”  The story is told of the little boy whose father asked him, “What is faith?”  The boy answered, “It’s when you believe things you know aren’t true.”  That sums up the popular attitude toward the Christian faith in modern Western culture.  Both people outside the Church, and many inside as well, think the faith consists in “holding one’s nose” and believing things that are probably false. 

But that’s not the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus taught what is true, and taught us to seek the truth.  It is not the Church but the culture that believes things that aren’t true.  Years from now, in hindsight, everyone will recognize how many falsehoods our culture believes and hold with dogmatic certainty: that there’s no evidence for a God; that the baby in the womb isn’t a person; that all living things could come to be by random chance and natural laws; that there’s no such thing as sin; that sex outside of marriage has no negative consequences; etc.  We live in a world of falsehood in which the truth of Christ seems odd and unrealistic.  But the Gospel message is meant to lead us into the real world and out of the fantasies of contemporary culture.  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, not fiction.

Jesus says, “When he comes, the Spirit of Truth, he will guide you into all truth.”  We have hear an important teaching that leads ultimately to the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church.  Jesus is speaking here not to individual Christians, but to the Apostles gathered as a body.  They are the nucleus of the Church’s leadership, represented later by an ecumenical council, when the successors of the Apostles around the world gather together to reconstitute the Apostolic college.  Christ promises the Spirit will lead the gathered Apostles “into all truth.”  For this reason we have confidence that when the Apostolic college is gathered, it will not err.  If it did, then the Spirit would not have lead them “into all truth.”  Confidence in the Church is ultimately confidence in the Holy Spirit.  If the leaders of the whole Church, gathered together properly and in obedience to Christ, can err in doctrine, then we can really have very little confidence in the truth of our faith.  So we speak of the infallibility of an ecumenical council, taking a risky step of faith to believe that Jesus’ promise is true in an objective and tangible way.

Secondly, “he will not speak on his own … he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”  This stresses the continuity between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the Spirit.  The gift of the Spirit does not enable us to “surpass” the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and “evolve” into some higher plane of spirituality.  Throughout Church history, there have been various movements that have arisen—some of a conservative nature and some of a progressive—that have claimed that the Spirit has lead them to insights that overturn the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, or the Gospels, or the Apostles.  Some such movements have abandoned some or all of the sacraments, or the successors of the Apostles, or various moral teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.  There’s a hint of it in the contemporary movement to change the Church’s teaching on marriage from what Jesus defined and St. Paul clarified.  Some feel the Spirit is causing us to evolve into a higher state of truth.

But the Spirit does not overturn the Gospel and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ and Son of David.  This Jesus is God.  The Spirit leads us deeper into understanding his teaching.  He does not lead us to surpass or overturn it.  There is a “hermeneutic of continuity” between Christ and the Spirit.

Thirdly, Jesus says, “you also testify.”  And while that command has its immediate application to the Apostles themselves, nonetheless it also applies to the whole Church.  We must testify to the truth of the faith in the middle of a culture that is founded on multiple falsehoods.  The Spirit gives us the power to do that, the power to understand more deeply the teaching of Christ, and also to proclaim it boldly.

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