Scripture notes – Pentecost, Year B – 20th May 2018

The first reading today from Luke’s two volume work of Gospel and Acts marks a shift in his emphasis. Jesus in his life on earth was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ (Luke 4:1) and had prepared his disciples for their calling. Now filled with the Holy Spirit themselves, they will be ready to continue his ministry. The Gospel promise of baptism in ‘Holy Spirit and fire’ by John the Baptist (Luke 3:16) is now seen to be fulfilled on the church’s first Pentecost.

The readings are available online here.

Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11
‘Pentecost’ was a great feast for the Jews at the time of the wheat harvest when they offered the ‘first fruits’ in the temple. Pilgrims came to Jerusalem to celebrate, and so the first preaching of the Apostles takes place at a time when many from other parts of the empire would be witnesses – some of whom would be converts to Judaism.

Luke excels in creating dramatic scenes which make the important points come alive, as he does in his telling of the wind and flame and ‘speaking in tongues’ to the crowds. He certainly suggests this is a miracle, but commentators have given various explanations of how: did the disciples speak in the various languages, or did each foreigner understand in their own language? ‘Speaking in tongues’ (or ‘glossolalia’) was a phenomenon known to the early church (see 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 for St Paul’s views of both the value and the abuses that arose.) It has been revived in recent years in the Pentecostal churches, and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement.

What may be more important to Luke, however, is the deeper meaning. The disciples had been meeting quietly together since the Ascension; suddenly they are empowered to begin preaching to all those they encounter. From now on in Acts, the Spirit will be the driving force, guiding them as they preach, baptize, heal, and carry the gospel to ‘the ends of the earth’ – already pre-figured in those who hear the first Pentecost message.

Psalm 103:1-2-4, 29-31, 34
This selection is a joyous celebration of God’s works, with the central verse focusing on the creative power of the Spirit in all the earth.

Galatians 5:16-25
Much of this letter of St Paul is spent scolding the Galatians for this insistence on wanting to follow the letter of the old Law, but he closes in a more positive vein, showing them in vivid terms the life ‘led by the Spirit’. If we do not respond to the Spirit, he warns, we fall into many kinds of sins that bring us unhappiness: he gives a list, which he notes is incomplete, but is a good indication of what he has seen in the world around him. Most, of course, are still very evident today as well, and perhaps we could add some of our times so threatened by wars and complex new kinds of crime. He stresses that we do not have to fall into this disordered life, for as Christians the way is now open for us to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, with the result that we can receive the nine ‘fruits’ of the Holy Spirit. The ‘fruits’ may have an echo of the ‘fruits’ of the Pentecost festival, but now become ‘of the Spirit’ rather than ‘of the earth’.

We have a rhymed translation of the medieval Sequence ‘Veni Sancte Spritus’ which takes up the themes of the readings and turns them into a prayer for us to call down here and now all the gifts of the Spirit. There are many biblical allusions, although not many direct quotations. ‘Light’, frequently repeated in the hymn, is a common metaphor in both Testaments, from the first book (Genesis) to the last (Revelation/ Apocalypse). Light makes seeing and understanding possible; the sun’s light in our world makes all life possible, and so the ‘Light’ of God’s Spirit give life and knowledge. ‘Father of the poor’ comes from a Psalm. ‘Comfort’ is another common theme in both Testaments, and ‘Comforter’ – meaning more a ‘strengthener’ – is also a title used specifically for the Holy Spirit. The idea of ‘pouring out dew’ recalls the prophet’s call for the heavens to ‘rain’ down a saviour, for in a dry land like Israel, water is something much desired. The ‘seven-fold’ gifts are found in Isaiah 24:7. There are more references, but these indicate how the hymn places us in the full history of the Spirit’s action in the lives of all the people of God.

John 15:26-27, 16:12-15
Once again we are reading from the words of Jesus that John has in his account of the Last Supper. It is his opportunity, since he does not write of the coming of the Spirit in the way that Luke does, to explain in detail how the Spirit will work in the lives of the disciples and in the church. ‘Advocate’ (or Comforter) is a translation of ‘Paraclete’, the Greek word which is still used in some hymns and texts. It was a legal term for one who defends and protects, a stronger role than that of lawyers in our days. The court metaphor is continued with ‘witness’ and ‘witnesses’. The Spirit is a witness to Jesus, and through the power of the Spirit, disciples will also become witnesses. ‘The Spirit of Truth’ picks up a favourite word of John, – aletheia – which means the deepest reality and not just factual accuracy. Through the Spirit, disciples will reach a deeper understanding of everything Jesus did and said in the fullness of his life, death, resurrection. Here John emphasizes the bond between Father, Jesus, and Spirit, and how we are all drawn into that relationship.

Altogether, the readings for today paint a powerful picture of what the Holy Spirit offers to us as individuals and as a Christian community. I find them both comforting and challenging.

Alternate Prayer for today’s mass
Father of light, from whom every good gift comes, send your Spirit into our lives with the power of mighty wind and by the flame of your wisdom open the horizons of our minds. Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words beyond the power of speech, for without your Spirit we could never raise our voices in words of peace or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord.

Joan Griffith