God's Renewing Force
(Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23)
Introduction to Mass
Pentecost Sunday commemorates the event when the apostles and their companions received the Holy Spirit and it brings the season of Easter to an end.
For the apostles Pentecost was an experience which changed their characters fundamentally and gave them a new strength of faith. At the same time, it forged the new Christian community in a sense of fellowship and solidarity, which as the first reading shows, is a fellowship God wants the whole human race to join in.
As we begin mass this Sunday we think of the times when we've put obstacles in the way of the Holy Spirit working in our own lives, and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
The authors of the Bible and Christian spiritual writers down through the centuries have racked their brains to find appropriate images to describe the Holy Spirit. They've talked about a powerful wind and tongues of fire, like St. Luke. Or they've conjured up an image of a gentle, peace-giving force coming from God, like St. John in the gospel.
But whatever image we resort to the Spirit of God is always experienced as the breath of new life, it's always experienced as the power of God which takes hold of people, fills them with an awareness of God's presence, and changes them.
That's the first element of Pentecost that's important: God's Spirit is a force that transforms us - sometimes dramatically, as in the first reading but most of the time perhaps, slowly and gradually and uneventfully, as in the gospel.
The second aspect of Pentecost is that, when the Spirit of God is poured out on people, one of the main effects is that the divisions which keep people apart are healed, and a new sense of unity and fraternity and solidarity is created.
Pentecost has been described as reversing the episode of the Tower of Babel. In that story, if you remember, everyone ended up speaking different languages, and the result was misunderstanding and division.
At Pentecost on the other hand, that situation was reversed. The Holy Spirit enabled all the different language groups to hear and understand what the disciples were saying.
And again, the imagery which is at work here is the idea of the new Church community being a symbol of the basic unity and solidarity of the whole human family under God. The preaching of the message of Christ calls everyone and invites all people to come back together under God's universal fatherhood.
This was an idea picked up forty or so years ago when the Second Vatican Council met: the Council described the Church's fellowship of faith in Christ as a sign of a more fundamental unity of the whole human race - the equal status and equal rights and dignity that we all have in common just by virtue of being human.
To us, as Christians, these should be very obvious notions. But I would argue that when we look around at the world now, we would have to be very naive to think that we could take these ideas for granted.
That hopeful, generous, expansive ideal which was so much talked about forty years ago - the family of man, the brotherhood of man, and the unity of the whole human family - has, over the last few decades, begun to lose ground and lose influence. And it seems that it's being replaced everywhere by much narrower, uglier and more exclusive notions of national or almost tribal identity.
We see that in our own country in the press campaigns against immigrants and the increased level of support for parties of the far right. The deliberate fostering of hostile, paranoid attitudes to minority groups has become part of mainstream politics rather than the preserve of a lunatic fringe. The real reasons for large-scale migration are never examined in an honest and dispassionate way.
Or again, we can see a similarly narrow and ugly mentality in places like India, where a new brand of Hindu chauvinism has encouraged outbursts of violence against Muslims. Or in Nigeria and Sudan, where increasing poverty and insecurity have been exploited by unscrupulous political leaders to incite violence - and create divisions - between Muslims and Christians.
It seems to me that in these circumstances, what we have to do as members of the Christian Church is to keep bringing out this principle of the common dignity and common rights that all human beings have. We have to keep raising and defending the conviction that there are basic principles of justice which apply to everyone, no matter who they are or where they've come from.
Fortunately, Catholic Church leaders, in many of the world's trouble spots at the moment, are raising their voices in favour of dialogue between religions and cultures, and against any attempts to create a mood of constant antagonism and stand-off between different groups. Christian leaders have stuck up for the principle of respecting the values and beliefs of other groups, rather than viewing them as inferior just because they're not part of our own "tribe".
And increasingly Christian campaigning groups have taken up the job of exposing the propaganda that is employed to deflect people's attention from the real causes of division and violence in so many of areas of the world, and from the real interests which are being pursued against the cause of human solidarity.
These are some of the aspects of today's feast that strike me as particularly significant at the present time.
On the one hand, there's the personal or individual aspect. A genuine openness to God - being open to the coming of his Spirit -changes us. The Spirit strengthens our underlying awareness of the reality of God even if on our part our levels of enthusiasm and faith are often affected by ordinary things like tiredness and depression and so on.
And on the other hand there’s the communal or social aspect of Pentecost: that where the Spirit is active - or allowed to be active - divisions of all kinds are overcome, and relationships of fellowship, solidarity and responsibility for each other take shape and take root in us.
We have to commit ourselves to both those aspects if we want to be guided by God's Spirit in our own life of Christian faith.