Pentecost • Year A

George F. Riley, O.S.A.
1935 – 2022

Acts 2:1-11
Ps 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13
Jn 20:19-23

How did Christianity, in 30 short years, grow from a tiny spark into a raging inferno? It spread so spectacularly that by the year A.D. 64 it had become a powerful force in faraway Rome. It became so powerful that the Roman emperor, Nero, made it the target of an all-out persecution. But how? That amazing story is told in the Acts of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had promised to send his disciples, descended upon them on Pentecost and transformed them.

This confused body of human beings was transformed into a courageous body of Christian believers, a single body of witnesses, which we now call the Church. But the Church is far, far more than just a body of believers sharing the same faith. It is the body of Christ sharing a common life. Paul writes: “The church is Christ’s body.” And again, “(Christ) is the head of his body, the church; he is the source of the body’s life.” And so Pentecost is rightly called the birthday of the Church, the risen body of Christ made visible.

Two points about Pentecost need to be underscored.

First, Pentecost was a major Jewish feast – a thanksgiving celebration combining gratitude for the year’s harvest with gratitude for the Sinai covenant. This explains why Jews from all over were gathered in Jerusalem, why Jews speaking many different languages were gathered together at one time.

Second, Pentecost must be seen against the background of the Tower of Babel. Prior to the building of the tower, all the people spoke the same language. But when pride began to take hold of the people and they began to build the tower, God “confused the speech of all the world” and “scattered them over the face of the earth.” The coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost begins the lifting of this curse. The Holy Spirit’s descent enabled people of different languages to understand the disciples’ proclamation. The point is clear. What sin had split apart is now united by the Holy Spirit. God was re-creating the world and making it new again.

What the Holy Spirit began on Pentecost was left to us to complete. Like the disciples of Jesus in today’s gospel, each one of us received the Holy Spirit through our baptism and our confirmation. And like the disciples of Jesus, we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit for a purpose. We are to go forth and preach the good news to all peoples.

What does that mean in the practical order? What does that mean for each one of us here? It means that we take an active role in the Church’s work of preaching the Gospel to all peoples. It means that we support the missionary work of the Church, both with prayer and with money. But it also means that we preach the Gospel in our everyday lives. What we profess on Sunday we must put into practice and live out the other six days of the week. If we all did that, people would be flocking to join us at church on Sunday.

Let me close with an example of what I have been talking about. It’s found in Abraham Lincoln’s diary, about one of his trips to a battlefield. He writes: “Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards in the hospitals, those of some Catholic sisters were the most efficient. I never knew whence they came or what was the name of their order. More lovely than anything I have ever seen in art … are the pictures of those modest sisters, going on their errands of mercy among the suffering and the dying. Gentle and womanly, yet with the courage of soldiers, they went from cot to cot…. They were veritable angels of mercy.”

It is this kind of witness that Pentecost invites each one of us to bear in whatever area of life we are working. It is this kind of witness that the Holy Spirit has empowered each one of us to give. It is this kind of witness that you and I are called to by our baptism and confirmation. This is the Pentecost message for each one of us here.