Commentary to Pentecost Sunday – Year C
THE SPIRIT: HOPE OF A NEW WORLD
The natural phenomena that most impress people's imagination—fire, lightning, hurricane, earthquake, thunder (Ex 19:16-19)—are used in the Bible to describe God's manifestations. To present the outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord, the sacred authors also resorted to images. They have said that the Spirit is the breath of life (Gen 2:7), the rain that irrigates the earth and transforms the desert into a garden (Is 32:15; 44:3), the power that restores life (Eze 37:1-14), the roar from heaven, the mighty wind, the thunder, the tongues like fire (Acts 2:1-3). These are all vibrant images that suggest the idea of an irrepressible explosion of strength.
Wherever the Spirit reaches, radical upheavals and transformations always occur: barriers fall, doors open wide, all the towers built by human hands and designed by the ‘wisdom of this world’ tremble, fear, passivity, and quietism disappear, initiatives develop and courageous choices are made. Those who are dissatisfied and aspire to renew the world and of people can count on the Spirit: nothing resists his power.
One day the prophet Jeremiah asked himself challenged: "Does an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his pelt? Likewise, will you who are accustomed to doing evil be able to do good?" (Jer 13:23). Yes—we can answer him—every miracle is possible where the Spirit of God breaks through. To internalize the message, we repeat: "The Spirit of the Lord fills the earth and renews the face of the earth."
First Reading: Acts 2:1-11
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, the apostles were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard the apostles speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.” —The Word of the Lord.
Jesus promised the disciples he would not leave them alone and that he would send the Spirit (Jn 14:16,26). Today we celebrate the feast of this gift of the Risen One. Reading the passage from the Acts we are amazed by the numerous ‘prodigies’ taking place on the day of Pentecost: thunder and strong wind, flames of fire descending from heaven, and the apostles speaking languages foreign to them. But we wonder why God has waited fifty days before sending his Spirit upon the disciples.
To understand this page of theology (not a simple news report), we need to delve a little into the symbolic language used by the author. Luke places the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Yet, in today’s Gospel, John tells us that Jesus imparted the Spirit on the day of the Resurrection (Jn 20:22). How can we reconcile this lack of agreement on the date?
We must say at the outset: the paschal mystery is unique. Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and the gift of the Spirit took place at the exact moment, in the moment of Jesus’ death. Recounting what happened on Calvary on that Good Friday, John says: “he bowed his head and Jesus gave up the Spirit” (Jn 19:30).
Why then did Luke present this unique, sublime, ineffable mystery of Easter as if it had happened in three successive moments? He did it to help us understand its many aspects. John has placed the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Easter to show that the Spirit is the gift of the Risen One. Now we investigate why Luke situates it in the context of the feast of Pentecost. Pentecost was a very ancient Jewish holiday, celebrated fifty days after Easter. It commemorated the arrival of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. We all remember what happened in that place: Moses climbed the mountain; he encountered God and received the Law to be transmitted to his people.
The Israelites were immensely proud of this gift. They said that before them, God had offered the Law to other peoples. They had refused it, preferring to continue with their vices and excesses. To thank God for this predilection, the Israelites had initiated a feast: Pentecost. By saying that the Spirit descended upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, Luke teaches that the Holy Spirit has replaced the old law, and it has become the new law for all Christians.
To explain what he means, we adopt an analogy used by Jesus: One day, Jesus said: “Do you ever pick grapes from thorn bushes; or figs from thistles?” (Mt 7:16). It would be foolish to imagine that surrounding the bramble with attention, pruning it, creating around it a milder climate would ever make it produce grapes. However, if one could possibly turn it into a vine with the marvel of genetic engineering, then any external intervention would not be necessary. The bramble would spontaneously produce grapes.
Before receiving the outpouring of the Spirit, the world was like one giant bramble. God had given explicit directions—a set of rules, precepts, many recommendations. He expected fruits, the work of justice and love (Mt 21:18-19), but these had not arrived because the tree was bad: “No healthy tree bears bad fruit … and the evil person draws evil things from the evil stored in his heart” (Lk 6:43,45).
What did God do then? He decided to change the hearts of people. With a new heart—he thought—they would no longer have any need of an external law. They would do good by following the impulses coming from within them. Here is the law of the Spirit: it is the new heart; it is God’s life. When it enters a person, it transforms him and from bramble, he becomes a fruitful tree spontaneously producing the works of God.
When a person is filled with the Spirit, an unheard-of transformation happens: He now loves with the love of God himself. From that moment, “he does not need someone to teach him” (1 Jn 2:27); he will not require another law. John even says that the man animated by the Spirit becomes incapable of sinning: “Those born of God do not sin, for the seed of God remains in them; they cannot sin because they are born of God” (1 Jn 3:9).
And what about the thunder, the wind, the fire? It is clear from what we see in the book of Exodus in the phenomena that accompanied the gift of the Old Law: “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud over the mountain … All the people in the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning and heard the blast of the trumpet and saw the mountain smoking”(Ex 20:18).
The rabbis said that at Sinai, on the day of Pentecost when God gave the Law, his words took the form of seventy tongues of fire, indicating that the Torah was destined for all peoples (thought to be precisely seventy at that time). If the Old Law was given amid thunder, lightning, flames … how could Luke present the gift of the Spirit—the new law in a less spectacular way? If he wanted to be understood, he had to use the same images.
And what of the many languages spoken by the apostles? Most likely, Luke is referring to a phenomenon common in the early Church. After receiving the Spirit, the believers began to praise God in a state of exaltation. As if in ecstasy, they uttered strange words in other languages.
Luke has used this phenomenon in a symbolic sense to teach about the universality of the Church. The Spirit is a gift meant for all persons and all peoples. Faced with this gift of God, all barriers of language, race, and tribe collapse. On the day of Pentecost, the opposite of what happened at Babel occurred (Gen 11:1-9). At Babel, people began to misunderstand and to separate from each other. Here the Spirit enacts the reverse, bringing together those who are scattered.
Whoever lets himself be guided by the Word of the Gospel, and thus by the Spirit, speaks a language everyone understands, and everyone joins in: the language of love. It is the Spirit who transforms humankind into one family where all understand and love each other.
Second Reading: Romans 8:8-17
Brothers and sisters: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you. Consequently, brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a Spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. —The Word of the Lord.
The rabbis of Paul's time maintained that man is contended by two inclinations that pull him in opposite directions. The good one manifests itself only at the age of thirteen; on the other hand, the bad one is present from conception and exerts its power since man is in embryo.
To counteract it, they suggested an antidote: dealing with the Torah, the Law of God. ‘If a despicable temptation comes to you,’ they taught the disciples, ‘lead it to the house where the Torah is studied’ and it will be rendered harmless.
Paul is more pessimistic. In the Letter to the Galatians, he lists a dramatic list of works that derive from the impulse to evil, from that evil force that he calls flesh: "fornication, impurity, and shamelessness, idol worship and sorcery, hatred, jealousy and violence, anger, ambition, division, factions, and envy, drunkenness, orgies” (Gal 5:19-21). He, then, diverges from the rabbis because he believes that the drives of the flesh cannot be overcome or rendered harmless by knowledge of the Torah.
Man, therefore, finds himself in a desperate condition: "he does not do what he wants, but the things that he hates....” He consents in his innermost self to the law of God, but in his limbs, he has another law that wages war against the law of his mind and makes him a slave to the law of sin that is in his limbs (Rom 7:14-23). In the face of this inability to remain faithful to God, Paul exclaims, "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24).
Indeed, not the Law, he replies, because, although holy, it does not give man the inner strength to resist evil. It can be compared to the road signs for those driving a broken-down car without gasoline: it would not provide any help; it would only be there to remind the unfortunate driver of his sad condition and the distance that separates him from his goal.
Only the gift of a divine force can radically change the situation. At this point, Paul introduces the discourse of the Spirit, who penetrates the depths of man, transforms his heart, communicates to him the energy of life, infuses him with the ability to be faithful to God. The consequence of this transformation is freedom from the slavery of sin.
In the first part of today's reading (vv. 8-10), the Apostle develops this thought and deduces its moral consequences. Now—he reminds the Christians of Rome—you are no longer at the mercy of the flesh but are moved by the Spirit of Christ. Those, however, who close their hearts to the Spirit cannot please God and do not belong to Christ.
In the second part (v. 11), he highlights another extraordinary effect of the presence in man of the Spirit of Christ: the definitive defeat of death. Biological life is indeed destined to end one day, but it will not be the end of everything. The Spirit who raised Jesus and who dwells in us will give eternal life to our mortal bodies.
The Apostle makes a new, quick reminder of the moral consequences that flow from the pristine condition of those who have received the Spirit of Christ (vv. 12-13). From the baptized—he says—we expect works in harmony with the divine life in them. If they continue to "live according to the flesh," they would make choices of death. Then, with moving words, he reminds the Christian that he is no longer a simple creature, not a slave subject to a master, but a son, because he has received from the Lord his own life.
God has not only pitched his tent among us but has involved us in his life, as Peter explains to the Christians of his communities: "His divine power has given us the gift of all good things. He gave us the great and precious goods that were promised, so that you might become partakers of the divine nature" (2 P 1:4). The inner impulse of the Spirit causes the heart to overflow with uncontainable joy and to exclaim: "Abba, Father" (v. 15).
At this point, Paul feels the need to clarify the difference between the filiation of the Only Begotten, Christ, and ours (vv. 16-17). He does this by using the image of adoptive sonship, an institution unknown in Israel but widespread in the Greco-Roman world where those adopted enjoyed the same rights as natural children, including participation in the family inheritance. Similarly, or instead, much truer—Paul clarifies—man is introduced by God into his ‘family’: he is freely offered full sonship and the same ‘inheritance,’ the same beatitude enjoyed by the Only-Begotten Son of the Father.
The condition of God's children is wonderful, however—as John reminds us in his letter—"we are already God's children, but what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know, however, that when he is manifested, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3:2). (1 John 3:2).
Gospel: John 14:15-16.23b-26
Jesus said to his disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always.
“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Those who do not love me do not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.
“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
During the Last Supper, the disciples have realized that Jesus is about to leave them. Their hearts are troubled; they are sad and wonder what meaning their lives will ever have without him. Jesus reassures them by inviting them first to remain faithful to his proposal of life (v. 15). Love will be the sign that they are in tune with him. Then he promises not to leave them alone, without protection and guidance. He will pray to the Father, and he will ‘send another Paraclete’ who will remain with them forever (v. 16).
This is the promise of the gift of the Spirit that Jesus possesses in fullness (Lk 4:1,14,18), and that will be poured out on the disciples. The Spirit is called the Comforter, but this word is not a good translation of the Greek ‘parákletos.’ Paraclete is a term taken from the forensic language and indicates the one who is called beside the accused, the defender, the rescuer of those in difficulty. In this sense, Jesus is also a paraclete, as John reminds us in his first letter: "My children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin; but if anyone has sinned, we have an intercessor with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 Jn 2:1).
Jesus is the paraclete because he is our advocate with the Father, not because he defends us from God's wrath, for the Father is never against us, he is always on our side, but because he protects us from our accuser, from our adversary, sin. The enemy is sin, and Jesus knows how to reduce it to impotence.
Now he promises another paraclete whose task is not to replace him but to carry out his mission. The Spirit is a paraclete because he comes to the aid of the disciples in their struggle against the world, that is, against the forces of evil (Jn 16:7-11). At this point, a question arises: if the Paraclete is such a powerful defender, why does evil continue to prevail over good, and why does sin so often dominate us? Even the Christians in the communities of Asia Minor at the end of the first century wondered why the new world did not impose itself immediately and in a prodigious way.
To these doubts and uncertainties, Jesus responds, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." (v. 23). Jesus wants to manifest himself, together with the Father, not through miracles but by coming to dwell with the disciples. The Israelites believed that the place of God's presence was the temple in Jerusalem. However, the doubt had already arisen in King Solomon's mind that a house made by human hands could not contain the Lord of the universe (1 Kgs 8:27). By the mouth of the prophets, God had promised that he would come to dwell among his people: "Rejoice, daughter of Zion, for behold, I am coming to dwell in you" (Zech 2:14).
He was not referring to a material sanctuary. In the man Jesus, God has fulfilled the promise and made himself present (Jn 1:14). Now—Jesus assures us—God takes up residence and makes himself visible in the disciple who loves as he has loved. For this reason, it is not difficult to recognize if and when the evil one is present in a person and when Jesus and the Father are present and acting.
In the last verse, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, "the Paraclete who will teach and remind" all that he has said (v. 26). Jesus said everything; he left nothing out. Yet, the Spirit must continue to teach because he could not make explicit all the consequences and concrete applications of his message. In the history of the world—he knew—the disciples would be confronted with ever new situations and questions to which they would have to respond in the light of the Gospel.
Jesus assures them that if they keep in tune with the impulses of the Spirit present within them, they will always find an answer that conforms to his teaching. The Spirit will often ask for unexpected and radical direction changes, but he will not lead them in other ways than those indicated by Jesus. In the light of Scripture, however, the verb to teach has a deeper meaning. The Spirit does not instruct as the professor does at school when he explains the lesson. He teaches dynamically, becomes an interior impulse, pushes us irresistibly in the right direction, stimulates us to the good, and induces us to make choices in conformity with the Gospel.
"He will guide you into all truth"—Jesus explains again during the Last Supper (Jn 16:13)—and, in his first letter, John clarifies, "You have received from him an anointing, and it remains in you, so you do not need someone to teach you. His anointing teaches you all things; it speaks the truth and does not lie to you; so remain in him and keep what he has taught you" (1 Jn 2:27-28).
The second task of the Spirit is to remind. Although found in the Gospels, there are many words of Jesus that run the risk of being overlooked or forgotten. It happens, above all, with those proposals that are not easy to assimilate because they are contrary to the ‘common sense’ of the world. Those need to be constantly recalled.