A Reflection for the Pentecost Sunday by Fr Phil Andrews
I have to confess, I love Jewish humour! It favours wordplay, irony, and satire; and rather than simply being self-deprecating, it also contains a dialectical element of self-praise, which works in the opposite direction. A great deal of the time, the mockery is subtle, and not an all-out attack; that’s probably what gives it a genuine quality, so lacking in later forms of humour which can be dependent on the coarse and the intentionally cruel.
In a study written back in 1978, it had been estimated that 80 percent of professional American comics were Jewish. Certainly, when we think of Jewish comedians, we think of those from living memory, certainly the past century. Who can ever forget the likes of Jackie Mason: “My grandfather always said, ‘Don’t watch your money, watch your health.’ So one day while I was watching my health, someone stole my money. It was my grandfather.”; or, Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”? Nevertheless, as many biblical scholars will tell you, Jewish humour goes way back beyond the twentieth century; indeed, it may be found even in the Midrash, the ancient rabbinic exegesis and interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures: the Scriptures, which for Christians, form the Old Testament.
Often, Jewish humour, both ancient and modern, has focused upon some kind of suffering, which has then been offered as an ironic observation, so as to raise a smile, despite all else. In other words, rather than give into despair, the people of the promise, have lived in hope; even during those horrific episodes of persecution recorded by history. As the late Cardinal Heenan, speaking at a Session of the Second Vatican Council observed, “… the Jews have endured grievous, indeed, inhuman sufferings…” and yet still there is laughter, even in the face of such evils inflicted upon them as a people. As the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sachs, has claimed, Judaism has been “the voice of hope in the conversation of humankind.”
As Christians, we have much in common with our dear “elder brothers”, as Pope St John Paul described the Jewish people; thus, we can learn much from the tradition, for it is – whilst always respectful of our Jewish brothers and sisters – our patrimony too. We find the same hope in those Sacred Jewish Scriptures; that is because we have seen the cause of that hope realized in the fulfilment of that promise, the coming of the Lord Jesus into human history, and God’s abiding presence through the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit who bestows Faith, and Love, and Hope upon us, even in a world full of sorrow and tragedy.
Again, Lord Sachs observes how in the ancient world, alongside the Jewish nation, there had been neighbouring cultures where people believed that the gods were at best indifferent to human existence, and more often than not, actively malevolent. The best those cultures could do was promote a cult of fear and appeasement so as to dispel the wrath of their capricious deities: for these people life was tragic (and in late antiquity we think of the Greco-Roman world especially.) Meanwhile, Biblical Hebrew did not even contain a word which meant ‘tragedy’, certainly in the Greek sense, as we might consider its use in the plays of Sophocles or Aeschylus. This is why modern Hebrew has had to borrow the term for contemporary usage, in much the same way that Latin has had to borrow a word for TV: televisionem.
We may not be living in a world where pagan gods must be placated anymore; but many within our modern and secular cultures do regard the universe, human life, and human consciousness, as being the result of a series of meaningless accidents, lacking an intelligent design, and thus with no redeeming purpose. For some living in our world today, the human condition could not be something other, nor better, than it is. There is no hope, only cheap optimism; and the humour, where it exists, is dark and misanthropic. This is the “Culture of Death”.
So, what do we make of the feast of Pentecost, after over two months of lockdown conditions, and living in a world where cynicism is never far away? With many of us avoiding enclosed and crowded spaces, and either wearing face masks, or being exhorted to so as to ensure we don’t exhale over those near to us; does it not raise a smile to read in today’s Gospel that Jesus entered into an enclosed and crowded room, and breathed upon his closest friends? But joking aside, the Breath of God is the opposite of what the comedian or the cynic might consider taking a crack at.
Many images come to mind when we think of the Holy Spirit: tongues of fire, a mighty wind, a dove. But in today’s Gospel on this feast of Pentecost, we are given that most intimate of descriptions upon which to meditate. St John reports that Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. It is the breath of God that creates, gives life, purifies, and sanctifies. It is the most marvellous image of God’s divine action in us! It is the same divine breath which breathed human life into our first parents to give them life. To the tragic mind of the pagan or the secularist, this might seem like an inconvenient and hope-less analogy in our present time of lockdown and hyper-hygiene standards; but as St Paul reminds the Church in pagan Rome (Cf. Romans 8), it is the Holy Spirit that gives life, eternal life.
More than we might realize, we are so very like those first Christian disciples of whom we read in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Like them, we’re in lockdown; maybe even still apprehensive, and lacking the hope we so desire, possibly because we’ve been listening too much to the secular babble all around us, on the *televisionem*, or in the papers? Remember, the Children of God in the Old Testament encountered difficulties when they had faithlessly listened to the babble of the neighbouring pagans – so, let’s learn from Salvation History!
As Pope Emeritus Benedict observes, the place “where they were staying” in order to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost —the Cenacle—was the “Upper Room”; the eleven Apostles were listed by name and with them “the women” and “Mary the Mother of Jesus”, and “his brethren”; so already they are an integral fellowship, a new family, no longer based on blood ties but on faith in Christ. This gathering is the “new Israel”. The group constituted an authentic “assembly” in accordance with the model of the First Covenant, the community summoned to listen to the Lord’s voice and to walk in his ways; and this is achieved because all “devoted themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14.). Prayer, therefore, is the principle activity of the growing Church through which it receives its unity from the Lord and lets itself be guided by his will, in what will become its diversity.
The Jewish Feast of Pentecost was the feast of the Sinai Covenant which commemorated the Lord God Almighty’s claiming of Israel to be his own possession, as a sign of his holiness to the world. It had been accompanied by terrifying manifestations of divine might in the “upper room” of that propitious mountain: “… Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” (Exodus 19:18.). The wind and fire of Sinai is again manifest in that Mount Zion upper room as the new Israel of the Church is claimed by God; but this time, there is no element of fear. In the Pentecost of the New Testament, the fire descends upon the living rock of the nascent Church, as in the form of tongues of fire, it settles upon each of the disciples, who are then filled with the mighty power of the Holy Spirit.
One verse, twenty-two, provides us with two of the three keywords, found in today’s Gospel, which reveal the roadmap of how we are to respond to that same Pentecost call of God to us: the call to live our lives as Spirit-filled disciples in a post-lockdown, twenty-first century secular world. “After saying this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”. He “breathed” on them… ἐμφυσάω (emphysao). In the Clementine Vulgate, it becomes the Latin, insufflavit. This, in English, is the medical term “insufflate” which is often employed when used in relation to resuscitating someone who is struggling to live. The tragedy of sin will stifle our lives; but God, the Divine Physician, wants to resuscitate us to eternal life with the grace of the Holy Spirit. An associated term is “inspire”, which can mean animate, quicken, enliven.
The other key word in this verse is, λαμβάνω (lambano). This word means to receive (which we often associate with a passive action), but in the Greek it also means to take, to grasp, to take into one’s possession, to include in an experience, to make a choice, to accept as true, … to enter into a close relationship. The Lord yearns to give us everything; but we must make a choice to accept it as he won’t coerce us. This is the moment of relationship when God becomes closer to us than we are even to ourselves. This is “divine intimacy”, and this is what graces us to live as people of divine hope.
If we choose to receive, and to take what the Lord offers, we shall live our “Baptism of fire”, and we shall “began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit [gives us] the gift of speech” (Cf. Acts 2:4); not necessarily literally the language of another nation, but it will be the ability to speak the language of another heart, drawing that heart towards God. (Cf. I Corinthians 12: 3-7). St John Henry Newman’s motto, cor ad cor loquitur, “heart speaks unto heart”, can be understood as our heart, the heart of the beloved disciple, speaking to the Divine Lover. But it can also be further understood as the beloved disciple’s heart – filled with the loving indwelling of God – reaching out to the other, who is searching for that same Divine Love to inhabit their own heart.
The Church, the new Israel, is a communion of Christian disciples, quickened by the Holy Spirit to be of “one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32), speaking the new language of hope inspired by the Word of God to those hearts out there in the world who want to know that divine intimacy, too. This, Pope Benedict teaches, is the means to overcome the curse of Babel (Cf. Genesis 11:7–9) – no more useless babbling (Cf. (Qoheleth) Ecclesiastes 10:12-15). Indeed, it is only the Holy Spirit who creates unity in love, and in the reciprocal acceptance of diversity which can then free humanity from the false “freedoms” which yield only alienation and hopelessness, and thus lead to tragedy.
The third keyword that came twice from the lips of the Risen Lord Jesus when he appeared amongst his disciples in that Upper Room is Shalom—“peace be with you!” (John 20:19, 21). The expression “shalom” is no mere greeting, though; it is far more: it is the gift of peace promised (Cf. John 14:27) and won by Jesus at the price of his blood; it is the fruit of his victory in the battle against the tragedy of evil. Thus, it is a peace “not as the world gives” but as God alone can give it. It is the greeting which every Bishop gives at the beginning of the Mass; that sacrament of the mysterious wellspring of divine love, which (should) then gush out into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit carried in the communion of the hearts and souls of you and me, his disciples: Ite, Missa est!
And so, on this feast of the Holy Spirit, and Holy Church, let us thank God for having given to his people, chosen and formed in the midst of all peoples, the precious gift of peace, of his peace! At the same time, let us renew the awareness of the responsibility that is connected with this gift: the Church’s responsibility to be, always, a sign and instrument of God’s peace for all peoples – everyone – without exception (Cf. Psalm 49:2)!
Let us be prepared, armed even, with those spiritual gifts which the Lord has seen fit to bestow upon us in our call to discipleship, and let us use them well, and often, in his service (Cf. I Corinthians 12:3-13.). Let us take the blessing of “shalom” to the ends of the world – even if that means only to our neighbours next door – because the Lord knows our needs too, and will only ask of us what, by grace, we can give; but no excuses, no fear, only hope – for we are the Church, the disciples of the Risen Lord, and the Spirit of God which dwells within the souls of those who love the Lord gives testimony to that. Pentecost reminds us – the Church Universal – to carry out our service of bringing Christ’s peace to all people. We no longer have pagan Rome to conquer, but we do have a secular world where tragedy is the currency which we must devalue for love of God and neighbour (Cf. Luke 10:25-28.).
We witness as the communion of the Church Catholic, the new Israel, in being the sign of God’s holiness to today’s world. This we must do if we are to be faithful to our Baptismal and Confirmation promises – in and out of season (Cf. 2 Timothy 4:2.); preaching the Gospel of the Lord Jesus by the witness of our lives: living our hope by manifesting signs of authentic love and mercy. In so doing, we shall be cooperating with the Spirit of All Truth by banishing the tragedy of sin and death forever by the power of his love (Cf. Mark 16:20). The fire of God’s love will descend, and the earth will tremble at the sight of such a hope.
Emitte Spiritum tuum et creabuntur, et renovabis faciem terrae —
“Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be recreated, and you shall renew the face of the earth”.
“The God Who Speaks” an image of the mission of the Holy Spirit from Notre-Dame Catholic School for Girls