What exactly happened at Pentecost? As we have said, this is in some sense the most important moment of all for the Church, because the Holy Spirit is Christ giving his own life to his Church.
In fact, notice that John in his Gospel shifts the emphasis of Pentecost back to Jesus. Our reading for this Sunday begins, “On the evening of that first day of the week.” John is talking about Easter Sunday. “Jesus came and stood in their midst . . . . He showed them his hands and his side. . . . He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
Although Luke tells us of the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, John always wants to emphasize: the Spirit is given by Jesus. It comes forth from his wounded side. Indeed, in John’s account of the Crucifixion, the last moment, after Jesus says, “It is finished,” “he handed over the Spirit” (John 19:30). There are different ways to translate this, but John emphasizes that the Spirit issues forth precisely from the crucified and risen Christ. Thus he makes much, too, of the blood and water that pour forth from the pierced one’s side.
The Holy Spirit is the giving of the heart of Christ. This is what it’s all about. Pentecost is why Jesus matters to us.
But what exactly happens at Pentecost? Maybe we can see it better if we push off against two opposite misunderstandings. One view overstates the importance of Pentecost: as if the Holy Spirit was not in the world before that day.
To the contrary, already in Genesis 1:2, “the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.” Sunday’s Psalm, from centuries before Christ, says, “when you send forth your Spirit, they are created.” Our translation says, “If you take away their breath, they perish” – but the Hebrew doesn’t say “their” and the word for “breath” is “Spirit.” It makes more sense to translate it, “You hide your face and they are troubled; you take away the Spirit and they perish.” The Spirit has always sustained them.
He has spoken through the prophets! Without the Spirit the whole Bible falls apart.
And Jesus says, long before Pentecost, “no one can come to me unless the Father draws him” (John 6:44). Every motion toward Christ, long before the Church is born on Pentecost, is already a work of the Holy Spirit.
Another view underestimates the importance of Pentecost, as if all that the Holy Spirit gives is the “charismatic gifts”: the ability to speak in tongues, etc. The charismatic gifts can be for some people a way of discovering the reality of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is vastly more important than the charismatic gifts – as Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 12-14, where we find our second reading.
Indeed, though the love hymn of 1 Corinthians 13 is well known, what is too often missed is its introduction. Paul is talking about the various gifts of the Spirit, and he says, “Desire earnestly the greater gifts. And I will show you a yet more excellent way.” The love that is patient and kind is the greatest gift of the Spirit, worth vastly more than speaking in tongues.
What then happens at Pentecost? Our readings show that what happens is that the Spirit, who has always been present, now draws together the Church, the great communion of love.
In our reading from Acts, “there appeared to them tongues as of fire . . . . And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” And “the devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem” (already a sign of the nations gathered together – and already a work of the Spirit) said in amazement, “we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
Here the simple manifestation of the Spirit is to overcome the division of Babel, to draw the nations together into one. At Pentecost the Spirit, always at work in the world, is given precisely to draw them together into the Church.
In our reading from First Corinthians 12, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. . . . All the parts of the body, though many, are one body.” The Spirit draws the Church together into one, the soul of the body of Christ.
And in John, Jesus twice says, when giving the Spirit, “Peace be with you.” The Spirit creates peace. And “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them”: he brings reconciliation, and he does it through the ministry of the Church.
Pentecost is the birth of the Church: the Spirit binding them all together as one.
Do we appreciate the miracle of communion in the Church? Do we pray for it?