Our collective response to the worldwide pandemic reveals how various interests can at times come into sharp conflict. There is, of course, the urgent need to reduce the effects of COVID19. In addition, there are other concerns, including the economic health of the nation, the neglect of other illnesses that still need to be treated. Finally, there are the more intangible human needs that have been sidelined: social gatherings, of course, but also religious worship, civic life, culture, the arts, and last but not least, simple human touch, even the handshake. All of these are, if you will, “essential” to our lives. The issue before us is how to balance competing goods a way that is fair and reasonable. The solution, I suspect, is not simply a matter of reason, but also of goodwill. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson said: “Interest does not tie nations together; it sometimes separates them. But sympathy and understanding does unite them.” We Americans are at our best when we do the right thing out of a sense of decency, and not because it is expedient or profitable to us. Our national family is both noble and just, and the present challenge, ultimately, will unite people, not divide them.
The readings for Pentecost Sunday describe another, deeper source of unity: the movement of the Holy Spirit within the Church, the Body of Christ.
There is a beautiful poetry in the Church’s arrangement of the Scriptures for the Masses of Pentecost. One of the readings for last evening’s Vigil of Pentecost comes from the book of Genesis, the account of the Tower of Babel. The story is familiar: the human race originally spoke one language, but in their arrogance, built a tower—probably a ziggurat, or “step pyramid,” so that they might, in a sense, ascend to the heights of heaven, and there claim for themselves God’s authority over creation. Their pride proved their own undoing. They were scattered to the corners of the earth, spoke different languages, and were more isolated than they had ever been. Isolation and distrust are, in the Scriptures, the root of strife, conflict, war and bloodshed. The story of the Tower of Babel is, if you will, the “background music” for St. Luke’s account of Pentecost. The disciples find themselves in another “tower” of sorts—the Upper Room, where the Spirit descends upon them as tongues of fire. The apostles, in turn, spill out into the streets of Jerusalem, a “cosmopolitan” city in the sense that Jews gathered there from all over the known “world,” speaking all sorts of languages. The people hear the disciples speaking of God’s powerful deeds, each in his own language. The sacred author shows that God has reversed the cycle of sin that divides mankind. His grace enables us overcome obstacles that normally divide people against each other. It does not mean that each Christian, receiving the Spirit, can speak all languages fluently, even though recent popes—Francis, Benedict, and John Paul II, have shown extraordinary ability in this regard. The point is that the Church, as a Body, speaks to people of every nation, language and way of life, inviting them into the loving embrace of God, who heals divisions and reconciles us to himself.
Unlike St. Luke, who recounts the Descent of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, St. John the Evangelist conflates into one marvelous event the resurrection, ascension, and gift of the Holy Spirit. John describes the Spirit as the “Breath” of Christ who inspires the disciples to act in his name, and forgive sins, which is a divine privilege. The Council of Trent teaches that this is the basis for the Sacrament of Penance, in which Christians are reconciled to God when they commit sins.
On Pentecost Sunday we hear a number of powerful metaphors that describe the effects of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. I’d like to mention just two of these. In the beautiful Sequence of Pentecost we pray: “On our dryness pour your dew.” According to one of the great Fathers of the Church, St. Irenaeus, the image of the Holy Spirit as divine “dew” means that the Spirit makes a person’s spiritual life fertile and fruitful. Moreover, on a collective level, like water that helps the elements of flour and yeast and salt congeal into the dough that becomes one loaf, so too the Spirit transforms individuals into one Body that praises God. The Holy Spirit is also like the seal with which people secure letters. Just as the seal imposes an imprint of the sender into the hot wax, so too “through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us.” Let us therefore ask the Lord to strengthen within us the gifts of the Holy Spirit we received in our Confirmation—knowledge, wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord—and so reflect the holiness of God.