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Pentecost: The liberating Spirit

Today’s readings: Acts 2, 1-11; 1 Corinthians 12, 3-7.12-13; John 20, 19-23.

The context of what actually happened on the first Pentecost as recorded in Acts and in St John’s gospel is the context of an institution in desolation, already showing signs of surrender and giving in to the temptation to shut itself away as an extreme action of defence. This emerges clearly from John’s gospel reporting about the disciples, himself included, behind closed doors for fear of the Jews.

As the Book of Acts narrates, “the powerful noise which filled the entire house in which they were sitting” broke open the space for God to heal their fear and to restore their courage both individually and as a community. John’s account of Jesus “breathing” on the disciples his Spirit is the culmination of the Jesus story.

His breathing the Holy Spirit on them marks a radically new beginning; it stands for innovation, it marks the re-invention of religion. Pentecost cannot be seen as the coming of the Spirit on the Church as it is. The Church as it is can never receive the Spirit because the latter is uncontainable within human structures, under our rules, in our conceptualisations. Pentecost is the collapse of what is old and the re-invention of something new.

Our culture and society are no longer homogeneous. We speak a multitude of languages and it is becoming ever more difficult to make ourselves understood even on the very basic issues of social cohesion and conviviality. Religion was once our common language. That is no longer the case. We acknowledge that a major problem in today’s Church is communication.

We seem to be failing on the level of PR, in our proclamation of Jesus Christ and in making ourselves understood even with those who still come to Church, let alone with those who have left. So it is highly significant for us when we read in Acts today that all those assembled in Jerusalem on that Pentecost day were “bewildered to hear these men speaking their own language”.

It is the Spirit who empowers us to speak the people’s language of the people. Without the Spirit, as often happens, we speak our own jargon, and the mystery of God’s love remains concealed to many who remain excluded. The Holy Spirit not only empowers us in the face of present-day tribulations, but it also lifts up the human spirit to aspire to what reaches out beyond our possibilities.

Humanism, which at its birth was highly inspired by the values of Christianity, first sidelined God and then gave up on the capacity of the human spirit to reach out beyond itself. Perhaps the tragedy of humanism today is that we are giving up even on centuries-old traditions of wisdom that blessed humanity in the past and gifted the very fabric of our societies.

Bestselling author Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow, writes: “By equating the human experience with data patterns, Dataism undermines our main source of authority and meaning, and heralds a tremendous religious revolution, the like of which has not been seen since the 18th century”. What is today our main source of authority and meaning where life is concerned?

The vision of Pentecost even today, from the ashes of a once Christian civilisation, can inspire new ways of discerning God’s whereabouts in our world. The disciples gathered in one room on Pentecost day experienced a real transformation from fearful disciples focused on their own selves to reinvigorated ones focused on Jesus.

As at that time, we can so easily remain closed in on ourselves, blaming culture or the indifference of the postmodern condition of humanity for what we discern as being the eclipse of God. The Spirit can liberate us from the trap we have fallen into, particularly these last centuries in the face of secularisation. It is precisely from this danger, and from the partial perspective of reality, that the Spirit liberates the Church.

The Holy Spirit is not the deus ex machina of our shortcomings. It is a creative Spirit, it creates afresh, it is explosive, it cannot be bound to structures or subjected to rules. It is the free Spirit of God, the continuous resurrection of Jesus in history, the power that regenerates history from within to redeem whatever distorts or poisons it.

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