Pentecost: A Spirit of Wisdom

I am happy to say that I had excellent experiences of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal when I was in college.  I have seen it as a place where people learned to live their faith to the fullest, and I learned there to believe in the Holy Spirit as a real force in our lives. I learned a lot about Pentecost there.

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I am sad to say, then, that in one respect, Charismatic prayer serves as a perfect example of what the Holy Spirit is not.  I think there is something to the modern phenomenon of “speaking in tongues,” meaning gibberish, as a way of discovering prayer that transcends our minds.  But in the New Testament, speaking in tongues is the opposite: not gibberish nonsense, but sense.  In defense of charismatics, I can only add that, ironically, Traditionalists make the same mistake, thinking that prayer is more legitimate if it’s in a language you don’t understand.  So does a certain kind of “contemplative” spirituality that thinks that silence is truer prayer than the Liturgy or lectio divina. 


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“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled . . . there came from heaven a noise like a strong driving wind.  Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.”  Thomas Aquinas points out that one of the main characteristics of tongues of flame is that they stretch upward.  When the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Son, comes upon us, he becomes a power within us leaping upward toward heaven.

But in a pun (that doesn’t exactly work in English), Acts then says they “began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”  Charismatics, Traditionalists, and contemplatives are all correct in thinking that the Holy Spirit is tongues of fire leaping upward, in a way that transcends human strength, toward heaven.

But they fail to see that what happens then is not gibberish but intelligence.  The most confusing thing of all is that we become intelligent: “they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (or “tongue”).  “We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

The Spirit does not make the apostles dumb.  He makes them intelligible.  And in so doing, he binds together what man had separated.


For the second reading, we have a choice between 1 Corinthians 12 or Romans 8, two of Paul’s greatest passages on the Holy Spirit.  In both, we learn that the Spirit teaches us to speak: “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  “A spirit of adoption, through whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’”  Mumbo jumbo is mysterious.  But the greater mysteries are to call God Father and Jesus Lord.  Nothing that empties the mind can fill us with deeper awe than these words.

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The Spirit brings order, too.  In Romans 8, he “raised Christ from the dead” and “will give life to your mortal bodies also,” for “the spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  It is not mindless chaos that the Spirit brings; rather, he undoes that chaos by teaching us to live as sons.  So too in 1 Corinthians 12 the Spirit binds the many together in one body, the body of Christ.  “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”  The Spirit teaches us to speak, and to bring order.


We have two options for the Gospel, as well, one from John’s Last Supper discourse, the other from Jesus’s appearance on Easter night (at the same supper table, in the upper room).  In the first, Jesus says the “Advocate” (or “Paraclete” or “comforter” or “helper”: all the same word in Greek) will lead us to “keep my commandments”: not to be unruly, but ruled.  So too we will “keep my word.”  “The word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me,” for the Father is an intelligent, wise God, a God of words, who speaks his word in Jesus Christ.  And their Spirit “will teach you everything”—that is “remind you of all that I told you.”  The Spirit does not replace Scripture, but takes us deep into the words of Jesus.

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And this is the way of “peace.”  On Easter night he twice says, “Peace be with you.”  He shows them his hands his side, reveals to them who he is, not in a cloud of mystery, but in the deeper mystery that can be spoken in words, and infinitely transcends any cloud of mystery.  And then he gives them the Spirit of peace: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  The balance creates an orderly ministry: not a lawless chaos where sin doesn’t matter, but an orderly ministry of forgiveness.  And the conclusion of that forgiveness is not sin, but peace, union, intelligence, and order.  

Are there any ways that you under-appreciate the wisdom of God?

Ascension: “Stay in the City”

Somewhere I got the idea—have you heard this?—that from the time of the Ascension until Pentecost, the Apostles were “hiding” in the Upper Room for fear of the Jews.  The point of Pentecost, then, would be to overcome their fear. 

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Now, it’s true that in John’s Gospel, he does say that on Easter night, when Jesus first appeared to them in the Upper Room, “the doors were locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews.”  But John’s not talking about Ascension and Pentecost, he’s talking about Jesus’s ability to get through locked doors (as well as another theme about how the people of Jerusalem—not “the Israelites,” but specifically “the Judeans”—were opposing Christ). 

Ascension and Pentecost are uniquely themes of Luke-Acts.  John talks about the coming of the Holy Spirit, but not Pentecost—and in John, when Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit on Easter evening, it’s to forgive sins, not to be courageous.


For Ascension, our first reading is the beginning of Acts (written by St. Luke), the Ascension.  And each year we read the last verses of the Gospel for the year.  In Matthew, it’s the Great Commission, with no mention of the Ascension.  Mark’s version of the Great Commission includes tongues, snakes, and poison, as well as the Ascension.  And this year, the Year of Luke, we get the Ascension story proper.

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An interesting detail of Luke is his insistence that they stayed in Jerusalem.  In Matthew, the angel tells the women, “Tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goes before you into Galilee; there shall you see him,” and for the Great Commission it says, “the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.”  (Galilee is the far north, where Jesus and most of the disciples come from, whereas Jerusalem is the far south.)  In Mark, too, he tells them to go to Galilee.  In John he meets them twice in the Upper Room in Jerusalem (the second time a week later, for Doubting Thomas), but the whole last chapter is fishing on “The Sea of Tiberias,” one of the names for the main lake in Galilee. 

But Luke emphasizes something different: The Road to Emmaus is about seven miles from Jerusalem, and when they recognize him they return to Jerusalem; then as they tell their story there he appears again in Jerusalem, and it is there that Luke says he ate fish with them.  In Luke, the Ascension is at Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem, where the Mount of Olives is. 

(I don’t know when the disciples were where, but I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that the four Gospels are just telling different parts of the same story, and they can all be true.)


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More important, in Luke Jesus commands them, in his last words: “I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high,” because “repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  Again in Luke’s Acts, “he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father”; “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 

The disciples are not afraid.  They are not running away to Galilee, or locking themselves away.  To the contrary, they are staying in the middle of it all.  The last words of Luke are, “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”  In Acts 1 they go to the Upper Room not to hide, but to pray, and then to attend to business: “one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection,” to replace Judas. 


A couple of thoughts on staying in Jerusalem. 

First, Luke-Acts is very much like Paul in its theology.  A central theme is that Christianity is not a different religion, but the fulfillment of the religion of the Old Testament.  On the one hand, Luke and Paul insist, it’s wrong to remain a Jew and to seek religious fulfillment in the cultural limitations of the pre-Jesus religion.  But on the other hand, it’s wrong to dismiss Judaism, because it is Judaism that Christianity fulfills.  Above all, it is the Law that Jesus finally brings to its fulfillment, so that Christians offer the true sacrifice in the true temple, and Christians are finally able to live to the fullest the Old Testament’s love of God and neighbor, with all its social and natural-law implications.  The Church is the true Israel, and so the Church begins in Jerusalem.

Second, Christianity is not about heading for the hills.  It is not about fear of men or building an enclave.  Jesus commands the disciples—and he commands us—to go into the city, and then go forth from the city of Jerusalem to the cities of the world.  Christianity is about missionary advance, not retreat.

Our second reading, from Ephesians, sums it up with overwhelming riches.  The Spirit of Pentecost is “a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, resulting in knowledge of him”: Jesus and his Spirit complete the Old Testament revelation.  We are “enlightened” to “the hope that belongs to his call,” “the riches of glory in his inheritance,” “the surpassing greatness of his power,” which is “far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion.”

The Spirit of Christ sends us into Jerusalem: into the fullness of Revelation, and in mission to the cities of the world.

Are you running away to Galilee to hide?