31 May 2020

Pentecost and the Pandemic - Fr Kevin Alban, O.Carm

As we gradually come to the end of this period of lock down, there is an uncanny parallel with the situation we read about in the early Church. The first Christian community is gathered in prayer, as it has been since the time of Jesus’ ascent to heaven. The disciples, men and women, have self-isolated for a short period as they prepare themselves for the gift of the Spirit promised by Jesus. 

"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a noise came from heaven. It sounded like a strong wind blowing. This noise filled the whole house where they were sitting". (Acts 2: 1-2)

It is important to bear in mind that the Jewish feast of Pentecost occurred 50 days after the Passover, that seminal festival of liberation which recalls the escape of the people of Israel to a new life. On that 50th day, Moses goes up Mount Sinai (ascends, if you like), has his experience of the Lord, and comes down with the framework or key points for a new way of life, that we call the Ten Commandments or the Law. Moses’ descent from Sinai also marks a new relationship with the Lord. The Law is not simply an imposition, or an obligation placed on the people. It is also the sign of a mutual relationship: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7) So the celebration of Pentecost is full of meaning for Israel, and by extension, for the early Christian community. As we emerge from lock down, we can readily identify with that sense of freedom from constraints, of a changed way of life (the “new normality”) and with that sense of a deepened relationship with God, forged in the period of isolation that we have experienced. Israel’s period in the desert was the time the nation discovered its identity as the recipient of mercy and love. So too I believe many people have discovered or deepened their relationship with God in the period of lock down.

I would like to draw attention to two more aspects of Pentecost as it might relate to our current situation: the restoration of unity and the birth of something new.

Saint Luke’s account of the scene in the Upper Room underlines the power of the Spirit, in wind and fire. It also stresses that the disciples begin to speak in a new way.

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak different languages. The Holy Spirit was giving them the power to do this. (Acts 2:4)

The text is quite clear that they were not speaking gibberish or babbling, they were speaking different languages. The two commonest languages in Jerusalem at this time would have been Aramaic and Greek. Luke wishes to describe a new development here. There is a miraculous acquisition of new linguistic ability. Perhaps our own experiences over the last ten weeks have helped us to develop a new language of relationships, of community, of prayer…

Luke illustrates this newfound capacity for language when he describes the emergence of the community from the house where they have been meeting. 

There were some godly Jews in Jerusalem at this time. They were from every country in the world. A large crowd came together because they heard the noise. They were surprised because, as the apostles were speaking, everyone heard in their own language. (Acts 2:5-6)

In the context of the experience of Israel, this incident is the flip side of the punishment given to the people for their pride and arrogance in the Old Testament:

There was a time when the whole world spoke one language. Everyone used the same words… Then the people said, “Let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that will reach to the sky. Then we will be famous. This will keep us together so that we will not be scattered all over the earth.” Then the Lord came down to see the city and the tower. The Lord said, “These people all speak the same language. And I see that they are joined together to do this work. This is only the beginning of what they can do. Soon they will be able to do anything they want. Let’s go down and confuse their language. Then they will not understand each other.” So people stopped building the city, and the Lord scattered them all over the earth. That is the place where the Lord confused the language of the whole world. That is why it is called Babel. (Genesis 11: 1-9)

Pentecost reverses Babel. Jesus Christ reverses Adam. Mary reverses Eve.

More than this, however, confusion gives way to order and intelligibility. Misunderstanding is replaced by comprehension and fragmentation is healed in unity. The Christian community must, by its very nature, be able to communicate the experience of Jesus to others and this requires a specific language. One of the fundamental beliefs in our Christian faith is that God does communicate with humanity in order to teach us and to guide us. So, directness and clarity are basic to the Christian mission to bring the relationship enjoyed with Christ to others. Jesus Christ is, of course, the best and highest communication of who God is, being God’s own son. As St John of the Cross puts it, “For, in giving us, as he did, his Son, who is his one and only Word, he spoke to us once and for all, in this single Word, and he has no occasion to speak further.”

The final point I would like to make relates to the way the Pentecost event is depicted as the birth or beginning of the Church. Leaving aside the question of whether this is the only way of looking at the start of the Church, it is clear that in Luke’s description there is something new here. The images of fire and wind sweeping through the place where the disciples gather bring to mind someone cleaning or sweeping out a room! The action of the Spirit is to create, to inspire, to bring life, to jolt, to stir up. The birth of the Church implies a new creative force in the world and a new perspective on reality.

I have wandered away from the theme of the pandemic a bit, however, I hope you can appreciate the connection with Pentecost. As we come back to life in society, we bring a new force, a creative spirit, and a renewed framework for living.

Come Holy Spirit and Come, Holy Ghost, fill the hearts and minds of Thy faithful servants and enkindle in them the fire of Thy Divine love.
Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created.
And Thou shalt renew the faith of the earth.




Photo is The Pentecost by Adam Kossowski