Pentecost is an odd one. It is a major feast, third in priority in the Church’s year, that gets overlooked. The culmination of Easter, it seems to sit uncomfortably with the rest of the season.
Our discomfort with Pentecost isn’t entirely due to the touching thought Luke attributes to Peter that nobody could be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. (As someone who spends much of my time around students there are things I could say about this). Instead, it all smacks a bit of magic for contemporary minds. There are strange happenings, tongues of flame and utterings in unknown languages. It’s all a little too X-Files for comfort, and matters are not helped here by the enthusiasm with which the pentecostal event is claimed by a certain type of Christian. For these perpetually excited souls, the Lord is ever performing new miracles. Life is just one upset in the laws of nature after another.
There’s something contradictory at the heart of the pentecostal movement, and I don’t think the fringes of the Catholic charismatic movement escape here unscathed. The concept of a routine miracle is oxymoronic: God’s, say, dispensing the gift on tongues on demand would be just another regularity, like water’s always boiling at 100 degrees at standard pressure. And nothing that is part of the regular workings of the universe is God. In any case, for all that it appears to be an affirmation of the ‘otherness’ of God, the anxious grasping at the miraculous is nothing more than an attempt to domesticate the divine, to make of the reason why there is something rather than nothing at all, the ungraspable mystery that lies behind all things and in all things, an on-tap dispenser of the otherworldly. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes, for this school of thought, the supernatural equivalent of a petrol pump. The God whose story is told in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is altogether more anarchic. “The wind blows where it chooses“.
More anarchic and more sensitive to the nuances of symbolism: the God whose story is told in these texts works through signs to a narrative purpose. So it is with Pentecost; this is an eschatological event, belonging to the end times, one of those moments when that which is beyond the world breaks through into it, remaining all the time mysterious. And yet, as Luke has Peter say, it is also the realisation of a pledge, “ I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Just in case we don’t get the symbolic register, Joel, whom Peter is quoting, goes on to speak about the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood.)
The point of Pentecost is this: in fulfilment of the promise of the Risen Christ, the Holy Spirit is given to us as a free gift. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than God, existing eternally as the bond of love between the Son and the one Jesus calls ‘Father’. And, as God, the Holy Spirit lies completely beyond our ability to comprehend in this life. The Spirit cannot fit into our conceptual schemes, or else the Spirit would not be God. And yet we are given the gift of the Spirit, making us by grace what Christ is by right, sharers in the divine life. And what that means, we cannot understand at the moment.
That does not mean we can’t say anything about this gift. Historically there has been a tradition of talking about its effects in terms of the seven gifts of the Spirit. In general we can come to a certain kind of truthful talk about God by denying of God anything incompatible with being the creator. And since this is true of God, this is true of God the Holy Spirit. In particular, the Spirit cannot bring about anything that is a case of that falling short of creaturely perfection which we call ‘sin’. The Spirit will make for flourishing.
Human beings flourish in community. It is unsurprising, then, that Pentecost is presented as a communal happening. And so it remains. The gift of the Spirit is not given first and foremost to individuals, as their personal dollop of divinity; it is given to a community, the Church. (And it is characteristically given to individuals as they enter that community, at baptism). In a world that separates, forcing us into competition with one another, the Spirit unites. In a world that is increasingly fearful of the ‘other’, of the foreigner, the migrant, the Spirit makes union with them a condition of sharing in the divine life: I cannot receive the Spirit without joining a global ‘us’. Pentecost undoes Babel.
In this respect, I was struck by this from the Office of Readings yesterday, by an anonymous sixth century author:
And so if anyone says to one of us: ‘You have received the Holy Spirit: why do you not speak in tongues?’, he should reply: ‘I do not speak in every tongue because I am in the Body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue.