PENTECOST SUNDAY YEAR B ON MAY 23, 2021 (R. 1: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; R. 2: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; Gospel: John 20: 12-23)
FR EMMANUEL INEDU OCHIGBO
ONE IN THE SPIRIT
Today is Pentecost Sunday; the celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples; the third of the five glorious mysteries of the Holy Rosary. This Sunday also marks the birthday of the Church, and the end of the Easter Season. The complete name for the celebration is he pentecoste hemera, the Fiftieth Day. That is, fifty days, counting from Easter Sunday.
But did the Holy Spirit really descend on the disciples on the fiftieth day counting from Easter Sunday? There seems to be a disagreement between our first reading and our gospel passage on this point. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us the impression that it took place on the fiftieth day from the resurrection, and that the disciples were actually preparing for this event. But in the Gospel according to John, the disciples had no clue that they were about to receive the Holy Spirit. They had hidden themselves in fear behind closed doors after they had been disappointed by what happened to Jesus on Good Friday. It was at this moment of fear and disappointment on the evening of the Resurrection (and not 50 days later) that Jesus appeared to them, breathed on them and bestowed on them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What do we make of the differences between the two accounts? Does the fact that the two are not the same question the validity and the truth of the descent of the Holy Spirit? No! It is important at this point to remember that Luke and John did not write as secretaries, who were taking the minutes of a meeting. They did not write as historians, who recorded things chronologically as they happened. They wrote as theologians, who were interested more in the hidden meanings, in the deeper meanings of the things that happened during and after the public ministry of Jesus. So they went beyond how it happened chronologically to tell us the message behind what happened. They were also interested in reflecting on the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
John was interested in reflecting on the Pentecost event as something that happened after the resurrection of Jesus in connection with something that happened in the Book of Genesis. God created the man, Adam from the dust, and to give life to him, God breathed into the nostrils of the man, and he came alive. Jesus came for the purpose of recreating fallen humanity. So, when Jesus came back from death, he visited his disciples, and breathed on them, the breath of new life, to recreate humanity, to bring back to humanity, what was lost through sin.
Luke was also reflecting on the Pentecost event in connection with what happened in the Old Testament. Long before Jesus was born, the Jews were already celebrating he pentecoste hemera. The Jews celebrated Pentecost as an annual event (the Torah Festival) to mark fifty days after the Passover Sabbath. It was celebrated to mark the giving of the law at Mount Sinai, where God made a people for himself out of the people of Israel. This is like modern day Independence Day celebration. The Ten Commandments distinguished them from all other nations. But the law was not sufficient; it actually got them into more trouble. Disobedience of the commandments brought them more crises.
Luke in the Acts of the Apostles therefore sees the New Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit as a remedy. Here grace has taken the place of law. The letter of the law has been replaced by the spirit of the law. Obedience of the law is no longer sufficient; grace now makes up for our insufficiency. The number 50 becomes important for Luke in the Acts of the Apostles because, just like fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, a new Nation of Israel was formed at the foot of Mount Sinai by the giving of the Torah (Ten Commandments), in the same way, fifty days after his exodus through death into life, Jesus forms a new people, His Israel, His Church through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The gift of tongues was meant to undo the event that took place at the tower of Babel where human beings were scattered because they spoke different languages and could not understand one another. When the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, they spoke in different tongues and those who heard them were able to understand them in their different languages. The Holy Spirit therefore came to unite scattered humanity, and as Paul puts it in the second reading, they were given different gifts to build the one body of Christ. We are like the different parts of the same body; we are all differently gifted but equally important. Each one is expected to channel his/her gift towards building the community.
It is important to note as we learn from the Corinthian Church that Pentecost did not remove every problem, it even brought about new difficulties. The greater the presence of the Holy Spirit, the more gifted are God’s people and these can also result in people becoming pompous, jealous, aggressive and defensive due to misuse of these gifts. It then becomes very understandable why after Jesus breathed on them and gave them the Holy Spirit, he immediately gave them the power to forgive sins so as to rectify their differences should there arise a misuse of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Wherever there exist the abundant gift of the Holy Spirit, there must be readiness to forgive.
As we celebrate Pentecost today, we pray that the Holy Spirit may come upon us to strengthen us, to enlighten us, to encourage us, and to make us true witnesses of Jesus, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.