Monday, November 25, 2013

Homily - Pentecost Sunday (Year A)

Pentecost Sunday (Year A)

First Reading: Acts 2:1-11            Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13           Gospel Reading: John 20:19-23


It was Pentecost Sunday. As the congregation filled into the Church, the ushers handed each person a bright red carnation to symbolize the festive spirit of the day. The people listened attentively to the reading of the Pentecost story from the Book of Acts about how the disciples had heard “what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven”; about how the Holy Spirit had appeared “like tongues of fire.” Then came the sermon: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us,” the preacher began. “Like the powerful wind from heaven!” shouted a woman sitting in the first pew. Then she threw one of the red carnations toward the altar. The preacher began again: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” The same woman’s voice rang out again, “Like the tongues of fire, the tongues of fire!” Again, she threw a red carnation toward the altar. The preacher looked straight at her and said, “Now throw your pocketbook.” To which the woman replied, “Preacher, you have just calmed the wind and put out the fire.”

Today is “Pentecost Sunday,” the fiftieth day after the Resurrection. On this day, we solemnly commemorate that great event when Jesus fulfills his promise of sending the Holy Spirit upon his timid disciples, who gathered behind the closed doors of the Cenacle in Jerusalem.
The feast of Pentecost is the culmination of the Paschal mystery and it marks the end of the Easter season. The Easter candle, which has been burning since Easter to remind us of the light that has come into the world, will be set aside and used only if there is a baptism. Next week we continue what is called 'Ordinary Time' which simply means that the joyous feasts have ended, and we go back to the Gospel of St. Luke and continue to read the story of Jesus, focusing primarily on his teachings and parables.
Although today we end the Easter Season, it is also a reminder of starting something new, for Pentecost is considered to be the birthday of the Church. Have we ever asked, why do we celebrate Eucharist on Sundays? Sunday is actually deemed to be the first day of the week; Sunday is the day that God began creation we are told in the Genesis story. The Spirit of God moved on the waters on the first day! For the Jews, Spirit is a feminine gender word which also means breath or wind. Like God, Jews rested on the seventh day, Saturday, and early Christians, too, used to go to synagogues on Saturdays. With the advent of Pentecost, however, which is 50 days after Easter, itself a Sunday, the Church has traditionally also celebrated its birthday and the weekly 'Lord’s Day' on a Sunday. We celebrate Eucharist on Sunday, then, as a reminder of the first creation and of the second creation. The Holy Spirit that stirred the waters of creation returned to us on Pentecost making a new creation, her Church, and making us new creatures because of the Resurrection. This is really what we are all about today. And every Sunday!

Pentecost was the second of three great Jewish Feasts; viz. the Passover, the Pentecost & the Trumpets. The word 'Pentecost' comes from a Greek word which means 'fiftieth' – the fiftieth day after the Jewish Passover. The feast originated from a very ancient thanksgiving celebration, in gratitude to God for the yearly harvest about to be reaped. Later on, another motive was added to this day’s celebration with the remembrance of the covenant God made with their forebears on Mount Sinai - a covenant summed up very simply and yet very magnificently in that simple phrase: 'I am your God and you are my people.'
When the Jerusalem temple was built, this festival was transformed into a pilgrimage and the Jews of the first century, including Christian Jews, celebrated the great pilgrimage feast of Pentecost. Several decades after the death of Jesus, the early Christians reflected on their origins and chose this feast to mark the birth of God’s new covenant with God’s people. That is the reason for which the Acts of the Apostles in today’s reading says that there were many people in Jerusalem. They came from as far away as Persia and Egypt and Rome and spoke the languages of those nations. But that day, something special happened. The mysteries prefigured in that feast are fulfilled in the pouring out of the Spirit on Mary and the Apostles. The giving of the Spirit to the new people of God crowns the mighty acts of God the Father in salvation history.

In the First Reading of today from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke gives us in detail one account, perhaps the most familiar one, of the new Pentecost story in symbolic language that evokes the story of Moses and the people of Israel receiving God’s Law on Mt. Sinai. The scene is full of biblical imagery. The disciples were then gathered in fear in the Cenacle in Jerusalem. Suddenly, there was a sound “like the rush of a violent wind.” In Greek the words used here for 'wind' and 'Spirit' are very similar. The whole house was filled with the very Spirit of God. Then “divided tongues, as of fire” were seen resting on each person present. Luke’s account also evokes early rabbinic teaching that the voice of God on Sinai divided into seventy tongues and all the nations received the Law in their own tongues. Fire, again, speaks of the presence of God himself. God spoke to Moses from out of a burning bush. As the Israelites wandered through the desert on their way to the Promised Land, a pillar of cloud accompanied them by day, and a pillar of fire by night. The fire here is in the form of tongues, as if to say that each one present is being given the gift and power to speak in the name of God. The pilgrim Jews from all over the Mediterranean area. They were amazed to hear the disciples speaking to them in their own languages. The Spirit was already at work in bringing about the spread of the the Gospel fearlessly not only to the people of Jerusalem but to the people from all over the Mediterranean.
In the Book of Genesis, men tried to build a tower to reach right up to heaven. For such arrogance, they were punished by being made to speak in different languages. No longer able to communicate, they could not finish their project. Now the time of the Tower of Babel is reversed. The disciples have a message which is offered to and can be understood by people everywhere. People are being called to be united again as brothers and sisters under one common Father, revealed to them by his Son Jesus Christ.

The Gospel Reading of today from St. John presents us with a different account of the outpouring of the Spirit. It is evening of Easter Sunday. The disciples are huddled behind locked doors in the 'Upper Room,' terrified that the authorities might come to take them away as collaborators with the recently executed Jesus. Suddenly the Risen Jesus is there among them. "Peace be with you," is his greeting. It is both a wish and a statement. Where Jesus is there is peace. The presence of Jesus in our lives always brings peace and removes our anxieties and fears.
He shows them his hands and side to prove it is himself: the one who died on the cross and the one who is now alive. Then he gives them their mission, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Their mission and his are exactly the same. Our mission and his are exactly the same.
Then “He breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit.” These two sentences are a mouthful, but, they really describe the beginning of the Church. As God breathed on the earth and created the first human being, in Christ, we become a new creation.
With the giving of the Spirit comes also the authority to speak and act in the name of Jesus. "If you forgive sins, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." This is not just a reference to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the power to forgive sin. Forgiving sin, reconciling people with God, is the very core of the work of Christ and the Christian mission.
The disciples are now the Body of Christ, the ongoing visible presence of Christ in the world. This Body will experience injuries and wounds and disease... It will wander at times far from God. It will need healing and forgiveness and reconciliation. It will also try to bring the same healing and reconciliation to a broken world.
It is interesting to note that the Evangelist John does not separate Resurrection of the Lord from giving of the Holy Spirit - we receive the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit when we experience the Risen Lord.
The event of the descent of the Holy Spirit - 'Pentecost' as it is called by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, viz. the 50th day after Easter, which we celebrate in the liturgy after the feast of the Ascension. Here, we have to understand that for theological reasons, St. Luke separates the Christological moments of redemption and describes them in a different setting. In his account, there is a day for the resurrection of Jesus, another for his ascension, and still another for Pentecost. St. John, however, has a different way of looking at these moments. A harmonization between the Johannine and Lukan accounts of the giving of the Spirit is not only possible but preferable. The Johannine Spirit is realized in the themes of revelation, witness, mission, dwelling, and life. An expectation of empowerment is created but not fulfilled. The Johannine and Lukan accounts of the giving of the Spirit are not opposed, but are complementary.

In the Second Reading of today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of the effect of the Spirit on the Christian community. The Church and each community within it reflects unity and diversity. We are not called to uniformity. We are not clones of Christ or each other. Unity presumes diversity and a variety of gifts and talents and responsibilities. We are like a body. Each body has many members, each with its own particular function, yet they all are ordered to one purpose – the good functioning of the body as a whole. So it is with the Christian community, which is the Body of Christ. Each member is to be aware of his or her particular gift. This gift indicates the role the member has to play in building up the whole Body, the whole community.
So, on the one hand, we are called to be deeply united in our faith in Christ and in our love for each other. At the same time, each one of us has a unique gift. It is through this gift or gifts that we serve and build up the community. They are not just for ourselves, or for our families and friends. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."
Traditionally, we also speak of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, gifts that presumably were given to the apostles in the upper room at Pentecost and are also given to each of us during Confirmation – gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. As a matter of fact, we see many of these gifts acted out in the Pentecost story.

So what is Pentecost all about? One of the major things it about is, of course, the Holy Spirit. We often pray - “COME HOLY SPIRIT COME! FILL THE HEARTS OF THY FAITHFUL...” As Christians, we are called to be prophets. This, by virtue of our baptism when we received the gift of faith and by our confirmation when, like the disciples at Pentecost, we too received the Holy Spirit.
Now is the time of the Holy Spirit. He is at work in the world in and through us. Let us cooperate with Him by opening our minds and hearts to Him. Then we can speak out to others about the wonderful and mighty works God has done in and for us so that they, too, will accept Jesus as Lord of their hearts.
Today let us ask God to send His Spirit into our hearts. Filled with that Spirit, may we each individually make our contribution to the community to which we belong. And, as a community, may we give clear and unmistakable witness to the Truth and Love of God, revealed to us in Jesus our Lord. And this the Good News of Today.


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