The Sunday scripture readings portray two different accounts of the coming of the Spirit. The first reading, from St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, is the grand event in Jerusalem, when the holy city was filled with pilgrims of multiple languages to celebrate the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, a long-standing Jewish holy day observed fifty days after Passover. If you attended a church last night that used the vigil readings, you will recall that the first reading (Genesis 11: 1-9) is the account of the Tower of Babel fiasco, set in a time when “the whole world spoke the same language” (11:1) and presumed to build a structure that reached the sky, a blasphemous sinful act. Luke certainly has this Genesis text in mind when he describes the Apostles’ listeners of a much later day understanding Peter’s sermon in their own tongues. The Holy Spirit, in other words, has righted the wrong of sinful disorder.
Catechetics in general speaks of the Holy Spirit in many ways, with an emphasis upon empowerment, and this is certainly the case. But one is struck by the connectedness of the Holy Spirit to the forgiveness of sin. Acts 2 describes the appearance of the Spirit like fire, but then goes on to provide the text of Peter’s speech, which accuses his listeners of having crucified God’s chosen one. Acts records that the listeners were greatly shaken and ask how they may be forgiven of their sin. Peter and his brethren add “3000” to the brethren through baptismal washing, the climax of the day’s events.
The Gospel (John 20: 19-23) takes us back to Easter Sunday night when Jesus makes his first appearance to the Apostles (ten in this episode, minus Judas and Thomas). After a greeting of peace and a viewing of his wounds Jesus breathes upon them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. The next sentence is quite unexpected; it is a statement of what the empowerment of the Spirit actually means. “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold them bound, they are held bound.” It is useful here to recall the dating of John’s Gospel, possibly as late as 100 A.D. By New Testament standards the Church is well established. We can only wonder what caused John to depict his Pentecostal event in this fashion.
It may be that the evangelist was concerned about the condition of local Christian Churches. John is the only evangelist to record the washing of the feet at the Last Supper, just a few chapters earlier. In that episode Jesus explains that the true disciple is the servant of the rest. It may be that in the time of John’s writing the Church was going through something of an identity crisis. Other letters from John suggest discord within the Church. John’s portrayal of Pentecost as a power to forgive would seem a very timely intervention to the Church to address its own healing. When looked at in sequence, both of today’s Scripture accounts of Pentecost emphasize the basic nature of a Spirit-filled Church as a forgiving Church.
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I have celebrated Pentecost in a number of locations during my lifetime, but one in particular stands out in my mind. I was on the road and I went to Mass in an aging church that appeared to have had a number of burned out pastors over the years, including the present one. His sermon was poor, but I felt some pity for the man, as he struck me as struggling with life in general. But then after the sermon he did something that gave me hope. He told the parishioners that in honor of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, he would light seven small red votive candles he had placed across the altar. He solemnly walked over and lit each one, and I felt a surge of thanks for his honest if humble effort.
He returned to the presider’s chair and sat down, and we all beheld the little red candles twinkling away. Suddenly the 1940’s design air conditioner kicked on loudly and the accompanying draft blew out all seven candles. Talk about “an ill wind.” Borrowing a phrase from the Sequence of today’s Mass, I sincerely hoped and prayed that the Spirit would warm the chill of this man for whom nothing seemed to be going right.