Pentecost: Whit Sunday

17 May 2018

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Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.26-end; Romans 8.22-27; John 15.26-27,16.4b-15

TO FOLLOW Christ is to be drawn into the life of his Church. For this reason, the mission of the Holy Spirit is always ecclesial. In his farewell discourse (John 14-17), Jesus calls his disciples into a fellowship that reflects his own union with the Father. At Pentecost, the Spirit descends on the assembly, not on isolated individuals. In Acts 2, we meet the Virgin Mary and the disciples “all together in one place”. The fruit of the Spirit’s descent is an even deeper common life. United in prayer and the breaking of bread, the disciples share their possessions so that the needs of all are met.

In a reversal of Babel, divisions of language are overcome as the Church becomes the first fruits of a humanity reconciled in Christ. When St Luke lists the places from which the crowd is drawn (“Parthians, Medes, Elamites. . .”), he puts them in a very specific order. They are grouped around the four points of the compass, with Jerusalem as the centre (Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Abingdon Bible Commentaries: Acts). The common life that is built by the Early Church, across the boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and social class, subverts the values and hierarchies of the Roman Empire. By the power of the Spirit, that life will be taken to every corner of the earth.

The descent of the Holy Spirit, and the events that follow, fulfil the promises that Jesus makes to his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel reading — most notably, the promise that the Spirit will “take what is mine and declare it to you”.

When St Peter preaches on the Day of Pentecost, he is no longer simply speaking “about” Jesus: Peter is now speaking “from” Christ, filled with the fullness of his Spirit. “The questioning, self-surrendering seeker has become the proclaiming believer. How? Not by reflection, or private experience; not because after days of confusion and terror he has himself again under control; but because the Holy Spirit prophesied by Christ has literally received ‘of what is mine’ and declared it ‘to you’” (Romano Guardini, The Lord).

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What is true of Peter is true of the whole body of disciples. At Pentecost, Christ is born in them as they are born again in the Holy Spirit. It is striking that the Virgin Mary (who is not named in this Evangelist’s narrative after Luke 2) reappears in the first chapter of Acts. It was through the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary that God’s life became flesh in Jesus. On the Day of Pentecost, that same Spirit overshadows Mary and the disciples so that he might become flesh in each of them.

Throughout the book of Acts, Luke connects the actions of the disciples to those of their incarnate Lord. They face the same controversies over healings as Jesus did, and confront the same persecutors. The words uttered by St Stephen before his martyrdom echo those spoken from the cross by Jesus. They do not act on their own; by the Spirit, Christ is acting through his Church. The disciples are his crucified and risen Body.

Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Advocate” (parakletos, also translated as “Comforter” or “Counsellor”). The name stands in direct contrast to the New Testament’s word for Satan (diabolos, meaning “accuser”). The Holy Spirit is the advocate of Jesus, testifying on his behalf on earth. Jesus, in turn, is our advocate in heaven (1 John 5.2). Reigning from the cross, he comes not to condemn us, but to break our death-dealing cycles of recrimination and self-justification.

“The accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the lamb” (Revelation 12.10,11). In the light of his sacrifice, human beings no longer need to vindicate themselves at the expense of others, or find scapegoats for their sinfulness and frailty.

The Church’s common life is to be a sign of Jesus’s reconciling love. That is a demanding calling, and cannot be fulfilled by our efforts alone. It can be only the fruit of his life within and among us: “Through the Holy Spirit, heaven causes Christ’s fullness of transformation to be ‘distributed’ and poured out into history in the immeasurable richness of the Church. The Church is the medium designed and prepared to exhibit and develop the fullness of Christ through all ages” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer).

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