Pascha VIII: Pentecost
Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104; Corinthians 12: 3-7, 12-13; John 14: 15-16, 23b-26
Some people have characterized Pentecost as the “birthday” of the Church. But they are wrong. Women, how do you give birth? Is it in fire and wind? No. Birth occurs in pain, blood and water. The birthing of the Church took place not on Pentecost but on Good Friday. Saint John Chrysostomos preached that the blood and water that flowed from the side of Jesus on the cross “symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist”. From the side of Jesus, Chrysostomos teaches, “from these two sacraments the Church is born”. [See the Catecheses by Saint John Chrysostomos, bishop. Office of Readings for Good Friday.]
Others have characterized Pentecost as a reversal of Babel. One of the meanings of the Genesis story of Babel is to explain the reason for the multiple languages used by human beings; its reversal then would have been to create one unifying language. But that is not what the passage from the Acts of the Apostles describes. The Jews from various nations who had gathered in Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) heard the disciples speaking in their own languages. The miracle of Pentecost is that a group of Galilean fishermen and labourers were speaking of the mighty acts of God in Jesus in Arabic, Greek, Persian, Coptic, Parthian, Farsi, Hebrew, and Sumerian.
If Pentecost is not the “birthday” of the Church nor the reversal of Babel, what is this 50th day of the Resurrection about?
At the Ascension of Jesus, his last instruction to us, the Church, was, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel…make disciples of all the nations…” Jesus first says, “Go…” Pentecost is about Mission. It is about every Christian in a variety of ways as individuals and together as a universal Church, to go beyond the locked doors of our fears into the world. Our secular world is not to be feared but is the opportunity Jesus send us into. Christians who want to separate themselves, or run and hide from our society do not understand the command of Jesus. “Go into the whole world…” Is it an easy place to go? No! Will we be accepted by everyone? No! Will some segments of society work against us? Yes! Jesus still insists on, “Go into the whole world…”
After saying, “Go…”, Jesus said, “proclaim the gospel” and “make disciples” of every human being until I return. Pentecost is about Translation. The translation of the good news so that people are hear the message of salvation and are drawn toward God.
Re-translation is the job of every Christian generation. Re-imagining new ways to express our faith, our moral insights, our artistic expressions and ideas into various languages and modes so that people of various times and cultures will come to understand the message of salvation. Pentecost, marked by wind and fire, challenges us to reconsider past ways of thinking, reflecting, worshiping, and educating, no matter how venerable and time honoured those ways may be, so as to proclaim the Gospel afresh to people of our culture, time and place.
Both of these aspects of Pentecost are seen in the lives of Peter and Paul. After this passage of the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter immediately is in the streets not only proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection but he is translating / reinterpreting the Hebrew prophet Joel and the Psalms in new ways so that his fellow Jews and others will understand what God has accomplished in Jesus Christ.
Paul moves Christianity beyond Israel and Judaism into the Greco – Roman world. He spoke and wrote in Greek, the common language of the empire, and not his native Aramaic or Hebrew. Paul preached the Gospel in ways that translated Hebraic beliefs and the Crucified Christ in ways that the Greeks of Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae and Philippi and the regions of Thessalonica and Galatia would understand.
Peter and Paul and their companions were the first missionaries and translators of the Gospel. Mission and Translation. We are called to do the same in our own century and culture. And doing things the way we always did them is not translation. Translation is tending a living garden; doing things the way we always did is simply being a curator of a museum. Yet even museums and the major art galleries of the world today have learned that exhibitions are not to be treated as untouchable treasures behind glass but need to be inter – active for viewers in our high – tech culture. The same is true of the Gospel.
One of the greatest gifts that has come to us through the Second Vatican Council was the ability to use our vernacular languages in our worship. Though there are Catholic sisters and brothers who rightfully grieve over the loss of this beautiful and nuanced language, let’s be honest, those of us old enough to remember never understood a word of Latin. Otherwise we would not have needed our Saint Joseph Sunday Missals to, not follow the Latin, but to read the vernacular English translation. The grief of those among us must be acknowledged but as Pope Francis has stated, “You cannot turn back. We have to always go forward, always forward and who goes back is making a mistake”.
In 2015, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI publicly celebrating Mass in Italian just after the Vatican Council concluded, Pope Francis commented on the usage of local languages, “Let us give thanks to the Lord for what he has done in his church…It was really a courageous move by the church to get closer to the people of God”.
But Mission and Translation are more than the use of local languages to proclaim the Gospel or read the Bible or celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Translation also means interpreting culture and interpreting the Gospel for a particular culture. It means in our preaching and teaching translating the Gospel images and stories of farmers, shepherds, haggling merchants, kings, slaves, fishermen, and female only housekeepers to a culture that is high – tech, where family is marked more often by untraditional structures, where the role of women, gay and transgender people is rapidly evolving and where we have been cut off from the earth to the degree we all know that milk and bread come from a supermarket. Parables about farmers do not compute.
How do we translate the Gospel message to a society that has lost any sense of the transcendent and holy having surrendered ourselves almost solely to the scientific method of empirical observation, testing, measurement, and experiment? How do you speak of the divine which cannot be seen or proven to a people that only believes what is seen and provable?
How do you preach Christ crucified in the 21st century?!!!
I’m sorry, telling people they should just pray the rosary and go to church on Sunday will not suffice. The parochial school system that formed many of us along with the classroom model of faith formation has failed us evidenced by how many of those Catholic children as adults do not regularly worship God or are influenced more by the values of a secular society than biblical values. These same adults are now raising a 3rd and 4th generation of non-involved Catholic Christians. We need with the Holy Spirit to rethink, be creative and daring, be willing to fail and try again to proclaim Christ in ways that today’s world can hear.
Pentecost is not about birthdays. Birthdays look backward with fond memories. Pentecost directs and impels us forward with fire and wind; with courage and creativity for mission and the ability to boldly translate.