Opening the Word: One Church, one Pentecost

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An artist's depiction of a scene from the Pentecost appears in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis in the city of St. Louis. (CNS photo/Crosiers)

Timothy P. O'MalleyIf you attend the Pentecost Vigil, you’ll notice something peculiar about the readings. This is true whether you participate in the extended Vigil of Pentecost or the shorter Vigil. Namely, there is no reading from Acts, no account of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Nonetheless, there is hope that such a descent will take place.

We hear in Genesis about humanity’s first attempt to create a universal language and culture, one oriented not around God but built upon hubris. The irony of the Tower of Babel is that God wanted us to be united, but we wanted to be one according to our fractured vision of unity. We wanted to create a name for ourselves on our own.

We hear in Exodus about Israel’s encounter with God: a divine theophany involving clouds and trumpet blasts. This theophany occurs when Israel commits itself to the covenant, becoming a holy nation assembled by God alone. At last, humanity has a hope to be one … only if they enter into this covenant.

We hear in Ezekiel about the resurrection of the flesh, the dry bones that rise from the ashes of sin and death. Not only is humanity meant to be one: Even the dead, those entirely cut off from the land of the living, may be revived through the Spirit.

Pentecost (Extended Vigil) – June 9, 2019

GN 11:1 – 9
PS 33:10 -11, 12-13, 14-15
EX 19:3-8, 16-20
DN 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56 OR PS 19:8, 9, 10, 11
EZ 37: 1-14
PS 107: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
JL 3:1-5
PS 104:1-2, 24 AND 35, 27-28, 29-30
ROM 8:22-27
JN 7:37-39

We hear in Joel the promise that, even when we are unfaithful to the covenant, when we refuse to hear God’s word, there is the hope of a remnant. God cannot entirely depart from Israel, from the whole human family. There are those who keep the covenant no matter the cost.

As it turns out, we are actually hearing the promise of Pentecost, even if we don’t immediately recognize it. The disciples are gathered in the upper room, praying. They are the faithful ones, believing that Christ is raised from the dead. When the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, they depart from their locked room, preaching to the nations that Christ is raised, forever transforming what it means to be human. They go out to all the nations, using the gifts of the Spirit to teach in languages that each person can understand.

Here, we see that the tower of Babel is reversed. The goal is not a single language or a single culture that is constructed by human beings. A self-determined people eventually would fall into the quest for power that is characteristic of all earthly empires. This creation of a single culture would erase all difference and distinction in the name of a supposed peace.

The new union of humanity is only possible through unity in difference. Christ’s Spirit, the Spirit of divine love that had conquered death, is the only source of unity.

We can now return to the Gospel of the Pentecost Vigil, aware of what Jesus promises on the feast of Tabernacles in John 7. The river of living water is the Spirit that will come. It is the river that brings the sinner back to life and the bored to desire. It is the river that awakens us to the great hope that God dwells among us and within us.

The feast of Pentecost is the Church’s Magna Carta. She is not an institution intended for her own sake, meant to build up her own bastions of power, to construct her own tower of Babel. Instead, the Church is one of the first fruits of humanity’s redemption. This redemption is not intended for an elite group. Instead, it is a redemption promised for the entire human family.

As it turns out, the remnant is rather large. They’re found on every continent, in every country and village of the world. It is those who profess that Jesus is Lord. It is through the same Spirit that groans within us.

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is director of education at the the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.

Timothy P. O'Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D., is the director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.