Pentecost, 31st May 2020
We all know people who are capable of dominating a conversation. There just seems to be some people who, no matter how many people are around, no matter how late they join the conversation, no matter where they stand in relation to everyone else, no matter whether other people have something witty or wise to contribute, there’s that type of person who dominates every conversation. And sometimes it’s great to have them around, don’t get me wrong, when conversation is drying up a bit otherwise. They can fill the gaps, the awkward silences, no problem.
You could probably have taken your pick of the awkward silences that could have dominated in that upper room in Jerusalem, which is the setting for our first reading from Acts 2 and the scene of the Feast of Pentecost. Judas’ suicide. Matthias’ election complete, a sense of what do we do now. After all, Jesus had told them a few verses earlier to wait there for the promise of the Father, whatever that was. And then there was the fact that the Risen Jesus it had taken them forty days to get used to having around suddenly went away in ascending into Heaven. Dorothy having landed in Oz kills off one witch, is threatened by another and then another good witch comes and goes and Dorothy stands and exclaims, “My, people come and go so quickly here.” The disciples might have similarly been bewildered. But they stay true to each other and true to God. They pray.
The awkward silences are filled, St Luke tells us, by “the sound like the rush of violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” The Spirit fills the space and we know this is exactly what God does. Recall the prophecy of Isaiah: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne. Seraphs were in attendance. The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke,” (Isaiah 6:1-4). Recall also the Temple in Jerusalem, not the one the disciples knew, but the one built by Solomon. When King Solomon went to consecrate it ready to receive the ark of the Covenant, the writer of the first book of Kings records: “When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (I Kings 8:10-11).
God fills spaces. The Spirit is not compared to a liquid, or a solid, but a gas, which just fills a space. And not just Temples and Houses but even the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The same St Luke who tells us of Pentecost, began his Gospel with the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary, the power of the Most High overshadowing her. No wonder St Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptists exclaims, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). No wonder we continue that acclamation every time we say the Hail Mary because we are to testify that God fills spaces with His Spirit.
When God creates man and woman He gives us the command to do likewise: “Be fruitful,” He says, “and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). It’s great our generation has begun to realise that we need to emit less pollution so as to ensure future generations can enjoy it, but this must not lead us to inhabit this earth nervously, as if it were about to wither and fade at any moment or as if it isn’t really ours. There’s a confidence about the word “fill” that is to be at the heart of the Christian life for we follow Christ who said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The Jews in the Gospel had already kept a Feast of Pentecost, indeed our Jewish neighbours have celebrated it in the last few days, I understand: Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks. This wasn’t to do with the Holy Spirit, but was a sort of Harvest Festival. In Deuteronomy 26, God bade His people, once they’d arrived in the Promised Land to offer part of what the earth brought forth. The words commanded then referring to the story of Jacob are still, I gather, spoken by Jews today at this time: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt, lived there as an alien few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” They are then called out of slavery to fullness of life and so give thanks at the Jewish celebration of Pentecost.
We read elsewhere in the Old Testament of the Jewish antecedent of this Feast interrupting proceedings, such as in the second book of Macabees where the army of Judas Maccabeus stops its romping through the countryside so as to give thanks and to rest at Pentecost (II Maccabeus 12:32) before then return to the campaign trail and getting on with the slaughtering once again. This Jewish Feast is the context in which Tobit is introduced to us in the second chapter of the book that bears his name. He’s enjoying a good dinner - abundant living indeed! - and is instantly mindful of the poor. He sends his son Tobias to look for someone in the streets to help and remember, my friends, that Tobit and his family are reluctant exiles in a foreign land of enemies. They find a dead Jew on their travels and are moved to bury him, displaying a kindness the Church has subsequently honoured as one of the works of mercy.
Abundant living, expansive living is not selfish, therefore, neither does it ignore the plight of others nor our religious obligations for the sake of having a jolly time. This insight into our life is taught us in the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Love and patience; joy and self-control define the limitless expanse of the life to which we are called, as we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Brothers and sisters, the Spirit has not reached all the parts of our lives yet that it will be necessary for Him to fill for us to be truly His Temples. St Paul uses this image of the Spirit expanding within the Christians in Corinth to warn against arrogance: “If you think you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise… Let no one boast about human leaders” (I Corinthians 3:16-22).
One of the way Christians live out this expansive and generous life is through blessing things. We might think that blessing something narrows its use and intended purpose to something specific: priests bless water so that it becomes holy; we say grace before meals to bless the food on the table or on our lap. The reality is different though: we bless things and have a sacramental life within the Church to recognise that the whole world is very good, as God reflects when He takes a step back and looks at it at the end of each of the days of creation. We have statues because God has given us materials with which to experience the divine who is above all things of this world. We bless water because our Lord was baptised in the waters of the River Jordan and thereby hallowed all water. Priests bless rosaries and all manner of things because God has called us all to be a blessing to the communities in which we live, the families among whom we spend our time and the streets on which we walk. As we seek to be a people who bless, rather than condemn or divide, let’s testify to this expansive Spirit who fills the world and the Heavens. Alleluia.