Reflections on the readings for Pentecost, Sunday, May 19
by Fr. George Berendt, PIME
Acts 2: 1-11
1 Cor. 12: 3b-7, 12-13
Jn 20: 19-23
…suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind…
When I was a college student, NASA fulfilled the challenge of President John F. Kennedy by sending a man to the moon and returning him safely back to earth. Since then many more astronauts have gone to the moon and returned. NASA also launched amazing satellites, incredible telescopes, and an international space station that hovers above us.
The dream of NASA today is to send humans into deep space. The problem they face is this: how are they going to power these interplanetary ships? Weight is always at issue in rocketry. Will it be with a small nuclear reactor, an ion propulsion engine, a rocket that uses liquid fuel or solid fuel? What will propel us from point A to point B quickly and efficiently? One solution is small, so small you and I can’t even see it but without it we couldn’t see. The solution is ‘photons.’
Our sun is an interesting gas giant. It fuses hydrogen into other elements and as it does so it creates a variety of particles that fly off into space. A simple way of talking about these particles is to call them “solar winds.” NASA, as well as other space agencies, has discovered that they can use these solar winds to propel a space ship. Taking a cue from sailors and masted vessels future space travelers can unfurl a thin Mylar sail, catch these solar winds, and propel an interplanetary ship deep into space.
Like the solar winds that blow in space, the earth’s winds that blow above our heads are also invisible and valuable. These winds can’t be seen but they can be felt and employed by us. Wind is a powerful reality in our world. Without wind the leaves wouldn’t rustle in a tree top, a kite couldn’t fly, wind turbines couldn’t generate electricity, Columbus couldn’t have left a port in Spain to open up the New World, and waves wouldn’t crash on the rocks and make their beach music for us to enjoy. Wind is imperceptible, wind is beneficial, and wind in essential for life.
Today is the feast of Pentecost, an important religious feast that concludes the church’s Lent and Easter celebrations. It is also the moment we believe that the promised Holy Spirit, the Advocate, came down upon the early church and still remains with us today and will continue to do so until the end of time.
How does a sacred author writing about the Holy Spirit’s presence among us, using limited, inadequate, and human words, explain a divine presence and its activities then, today, and till the end of all time? What words, what image could adequately carry the reality deep into our hearts? I believe that the authors of our sacred writings were wise and astute when they used the image of wind to explain the Holy Spirit’s presence among us. As the first reading put it: “a strong driving wind.” This is a wonderful image indeed!
The interesting thing about a “solar wind” or an “earthly wind” is that both are invisible and obscure. We can’t see the winds in space or those that dishevel our hair on earth. Although wind is an unseen reality in our lives and in our cosmos, its effects can be seen and felt. Whether it’s an interplanetary space ship or a yacht in the America’s Cup Race, once those sails are unfurled and catch the wind off they go into the deep. What a stunning image of the life and presence of the Holy Spirit in our church and in our lives.
The Holy Spirit is like the solar winds in the cosmos or like the wind in the trees. It’s an invisible energy that can push, jostle, and knock down. It has a power that affects whatever it touches. Two thousand years ago the Holy Spirit came down upon the church like a rush of wind and breathed its gifts into the hearts, minds, and souls of a small, weak, insignificant, and terror- filled group of men and women hiding away in a room someplace in Jerusalem.
As Catholics we believe that at our baptisms, and later during our confirmations, the Holy Spirit gives us seven spiritual gifts. These gifts and powers from on high help us live our discipleship here on earth as we make our pilgrim way to our Father’s House. We call these gifts that the Holy Spirits gives us by these names: knowledge, understanding, wisdom, fortitude (courage), wonder (fear of the Lord), piety and counsel (right judgment). In today’s readings from Acts we can see the impact of one of these spiritual gifts – the gift of “courage” or “fortitude.” Why was this gift so necessary?
Two millennia ago, a derided and scorned handful of men and women gathered together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem wondering, perhaps, what would become of them. They were surrounded by a hostile world. They were despised not only by the imperial powers but also their own people rejected and hated them.
The recent atrocious and brutal death of Jesus was still fresh in their minds. The battered and bloodied image of their murdered leader haunted them. They had all seen crucifixions before; it was a common occurrence in the Empire. Rule by fear was the aim of the imperial powers. Now it hit home. It was their leader, their loved one who suffered this miserable death on the cross.
It’s even possible that a few of these early disciples of Jesus recalled His grim warning when said before His death: “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first… If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. And they will do all these things to you on account of my name…” (Jn 15: 18, 20-21). When this small, fear-filled group gathered in that sealed room on the first Pentecost, did they think that when they prayed the Lord’s Prayer and uttered “gives us this day our daily bread” it would come in the form of persecution and scorn?
Today we recall that event when the Advocate blew His gifts upon our fear-filled infant church. We also see the results when one of these gifts is given; it emboldens the disciples to go out in mission and proclaim the Good News in spite of the difficulties before them.
We should never forget that the second most common command of Jesus in the New Testament is: “be not afraid” or “fear not.” Jesus says this about 21 times to his disciples. In the beginning, fear paralyzed the early church. It seems they gathered together in a room waiting for the next shoe to drop. And when it did, what a noise it made.
I like what Max Lucado says in his book Fearless. He writes:
Fear never wrote a symphony or poem, negotiated a peace treaty, or cured a disease.
Fear never pulled a family out of poverty or a country out of bigotry.
Fear never saved a marriage or a business. Courage did that. Faith did that.
Just like the solar winds that blow through space or the winds the fly over the face of the earth; the Holy Spirit steadily and constantly blows down upon us His holy gifts, gifts that can dispel our fears. All we need to do in unfurl our spiritual sails, gather these divine winds, and permit them to push us along the correct path in life.
Our world is no different that the world of the first disciples. People will despise and even hate us. Some will even try to kill us while other will treat us as irrelevant. As Jesus said, “the world loves its own” (Jn 15:18). We know to whom we belong. However one thing we can’t do is fear. Our Father sustains us, Jesus is with us to the end and the Advocate has come loaded with special gifts. Let us unwrap them and us them ‘to proclaim the mighty acts of God (AA 2:11). Happy Pentecost to one and all!