Orbiting Dicta

Pentecost 2020: Come Holy Spirit!

Chaos and violence erupted in Chicago last night, as in large cities from coast to coast. This civic and social calamity was undoubtedly fueled by years of pent-up resentment, grief, hopelessness and, for minority members of the population, especially Black Americans, decades of discrimination, de-facto segregation, poverty, disregard, promises broken, and now the dual crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing job losses, hunger, and likely destitution. Much of the frustration, despair, and anger is driven by gross economic injustice, the unequal distribution of wealth in this land of plenty. Some is driven by revenge and class hatred. The darker angels of our nature are also at work.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” [W. B. Yeats, ‘The Second Coming.’]

As with the days of rage and conflagration that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, when much of the west side of Chicago went up in flames, the most serious damage afflicted  the poor and largely defenseless black neighborhoods. I have vivid memories of the acrid smell of smoke that drifted west for days afterwards.

We have seen protests before, many recent, some turning violent, but the last week marks a grim milestone in the often tragic struggle for justice and peace in America.  George Floyd used a counterfeit $20 bill, probably unknowingly as the country is awash with them, to purchase cigarettes, was accused of forgery, arrested, and subsequently killed at the hands (and knees) of those who are pledged to serve and protect.

George Floyd’s death is unlikely to be the last in the long series of such deeply disturbing killings, but it was a tipping point, the spark that ignited outrage across the nation and even abroad.

In all this uproar and confusion, many Christians pause in sadness and hope to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the great finale of the Easter cycle and, as it is often referred to, the birthday of the Church. It is difficult to relate these disparate occasions, but the more necessary to do so.

The story of Pentecost is as familiar to us as any of the great Easter mysteries, although we often get it wrong in our paintings.  No dove is
mentioned, only the sound of a great wind and tongues as of fire.  Pentecost itself was the ancient Hebrew Feast of Weeks, the celebration marking seven weeks and a day after the beginning of the wheat harvest.  It was one of the three major festivals of the calendar.  It has now been seven weeks and a day since Easter Sunday.  As the day on which the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ, filled the disciples with courage and even miraculous gifts to aid in the preaching of the gospel, it truly marks the beginning of the great harvest Jesus promised [Matt 9:37, Mark 4:29, Luke 10:2, John 4:35, etc.].

Later generations of Christians looked back to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church.  But the Holy Spirit was no stranger either to the Hebrews or to the disciples of Jesus — the Hebrew scriptures are filled with references to the Spirit, and, as we’ve seen, the same Spirit was revealed at Jesus’ baptism.  More importantly, and more mysteriously, Jesus endows the disciples with this Spirit on the night of the Resurrection, a gift that we commemorate in today’s reading from John’s gospel.

“….After he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ [John 20:22].” This is the Paraklete, the “other advocate” that Jesus had promised at the Last Supper, the one who would not only defend them when Jesus was no longer visibly present, but would lead his disciples into all truth.  But before Jesus breathes the Spirit into his disciples, he prepares them with three gifts.

“When, on the evening of that first day of the week, Jesus came and stood among the disciples, he said, ‘Peace be with you.’  Peace is the first gift of the Risen Lord.

Again Jesus said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” [John 20:21]  Mission is the second gift of the Savior — and more than a gift, a responsibility.  Jesus sends the disciples forth equipped with the greatest gift of all for the greatest task on earth.  Just as God sent him, as John tells us earlier in his gospel:

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.   For God sent the Son into the world, not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [John 3: 16 – 21].  That is, through total uncompromising love.

That is the love that leads to salvation, saving — making people and the whole world safe.  But safe from what?  Jesus answers with the third and most surprising gift: he breathes the Spirit into them and says simply and perhaps surprisingly, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

How strange that sounds after what has preceded.  But it makes sense, divine sense.  God saves the world through the gift of love that enables us to forgive, to overcome the power of sin, hatred, and death, the deep darkness that would stifle the light and life of the world.  Elsewhere Jesus calls it binding and loosing [see Matt 16:19].  In scripture, to bind or retain always means to grapple with or hold on to something.  Christian ‘binding’ means to come to grips with injustice and oppression.   It means prophetic action, the refusal to stand mute and idle in the face of sin, the willingness to expose and resist evil in the face of its denial, to hold people accountable.  But also and especially to ‘loose’: to forgive, to let go, to unbind, to allow the healing presence of God to overcome injury, hostility, and resentment by the sheer force of love.

Our mission and ministry, like that of Jesus, is not to condemn the world, but to save it from darkness and sin by the power of love, peace, and forgiveness, to rise up singing, to stand joyfully against injustice and the worship of violence and death.  Where love, peace, and forgiveness rule, there the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts and lives, there the saving presence of Jesus leads us into truth and freedom.  As we sing today in the great hymn ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus,”

“Lord of consolation come,
Warm us when our hearts are numb,
Great consoler, come and heal,
To our souls your strength reveal;
Cool refreshing comfort pour,
And our peace of mind restore.”

[Anthony G. Petti, trans.]