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Pentecost in the Pantheon in Rome

1. Birthdays are celebrated in many different ways. Possibly as the digits increase, apart from significant 'landmarks', the way we mark the occasion may be less exuberant than that of childhood festivity.

Traditionally, we think of Pentecost as the 'birthday' of the church. On this day, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and energised them to move out into mission and ministry. In other words, on this day, the church actually started to be 'church'.

In terms of birthday celebration, rather than calculating the number of candles for the cake(!) we might best celebrate by allowing ourselves to be in touch with that gift of the Holy Spirit which we all received at Baptism and at Confirmation.

In some churches, there can be a commemoration of those tongues of fire coming down on the apostles. In the Pantheon in Rome, rose petals are allowed to flutter down through the oculus in the roof, quite a spectacular sight. The energy of the Holy Spirit at work in Christian disciples may be less spectacular, but no less effective for that.

'Come, Holy Spirit; fill the hearts of the faithful.' Veni, Sancte Spiritus! 

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and each began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech. (Acts 2;4)

2. In our First Reading, we have the most dramatic account of the moment when the Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles. They are gathered together in that upper room, possibly not entirely sure how they are now to function as disciples of a Risen Lord who has just ascended to the Father. They have been told to gather in intense prayer, with Mary the Mother of Jesus. In this atmosphere of devotion, the Holy Spirit descends on them. The description of the details of this show that this is not something that is easily put into words. The sacred writer struggles to convey exactly what happened: "something like a powerful wind'...something like tongues of fire.....' The episode is overwhelming, and the effects of it are overwhelming also. The gift of tongues is one feature of the power of the Spiirit. However, the apostles may have felt, we know that very soon after, everyone could hear them preaching in their own language. 

We have the gift of the Holy Spirit, not given in the same spectacular way, but the very same Holy Spirit. We also are expected to go out in the power of that Spirit - and preach the Gospel in a language that people can understand. Sometimes our preaching has been hard to hear and harder to understand. The language of care and compassion will never be difficult to understand or accept. The language of healing is universal. The language of Christ-like love needs no dictionary.

3. The Second Reading for Pentecost is taken from 1 Corinthians. Paul helps us to appreciate what it means to be a bearer of the Holy Spirit - 'under the influence' of this Spirit. He is clear that there will be 'a variety of gifts'; these are given to empower different kinds of service. The 'particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose.' 

This purpose is the building up of the community of the church. The energy of the Spirit is given to each of us to enable us to be of service to one another, to help us imitate the serving love of Jesus.

Paul thinks of the different parts of one body - all are connected and all form one whole. 

Pentecost asks each of us to reflect on our gifts and our use of them.

The Heilig Geist Loch, the aperture for the Holy Spirit, in the church of Ss Peter and Paul, Söll, Tyrol. The dove can just about be seen a little below the opening.

James Tissot: 'Apparition du Christ au Cénacle',

1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum

4. The Gospel takes us to chapter 20 of John's Gospel. Here Jesus appears in the locked upper room where the disciples stayed, 'for fear of the Jews'. As with each of the post-Resurrection appearances, Jesus' first words are: "Peace be with you." He says this not once, but twice, as if to underline the need for this gift, the 'shalom' of Christ himself. Jesus knows the state of alarm, fear, anxiety which is the reality of this present moment for the disciples. He changes this with his calming peace. 

Then Jesus imposes mission on the disciples. In the same way as he himself was sent by the Father, so they are now being sent by Jesus. This is the very meaning of the word 'apostle'. The verb, apostello, in Greek means to send out. To be able to carry out this mission, Jesus breathed on them and gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit. Here that gift is given in connection with the power to forgive. That is indeed a powerful gift. We ourselves know how difficult it can be to ask for, and indeed, offer forgiveness. The energy of the Holy Spirit alone can create this dynamic.

At Pentecost, whether we concentrate on the gift of the Spirit in that most dramatic event of the descent of those tongues of fire that enable meaningful preaching, or whether we pause in that upper room and share that quiet but powerful moment of catching the breath of Jesus and the power to forgive, there is a tremendous reality, the power of the Spirit. We should be thankful for this gift and look to ways to channel this energy.

 

Sonnet for Pentecost

 

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today  the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother-tongue is Love, in  every nation.

 

Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite,

Sounding the Seasons

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