Faith in the Public Square


Another Voice is back! This week my final biblical Christological reflection: Pentecost.

The early followers of Jesus were of course observant Jews. We really cannot understand the Christian scriptures correctly unless we see them anchored in a Jewish (Christian) background. The men and women who were Jesus’ disciples had celebrated Passover with him in Jerusalem. Now (fifty days after Passover), as observant Jews they observed Shavuot without him physically present.

Shavuot commemorates God’s giving the Torah and establishing a covenant with the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. The holiday (holyday) was a great Jewish pilgrimage festival in Jerusalem. The word Shavuot means weeks, and the festival of Shavuot marked the completion of the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot. Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Passover, Hellenistic Jews gave it the name “Pentecost.”

The author of Acts of Apostles gives this description of Jewish Christians gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate their Jewish festival of Pentecost (Shavuot).

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven…Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs… (Acts 2:5, 9-11)

In other words, Jews from the Diaspora as well as locals had gathered in Jerusalem. They came from as far away as today’s Iran, Turkey, and North Africa. Each speaking as well his or her own local language.

According to Acts of Apostles, Jesus’ disciples were gathered in a home when a strange, wind-like sound filled the air and tongues of fire appeared above their heads; and they “were filled with the Holy Spirit.” They began speaking in strange languages other than their own. Some observers thought that they were drunk; but one of the disciples, Peter, pointed out that it was early in the morning, much too early for people to be drunk. This dramatic episode appears nowhere else in the Christian scriptures.

As those early followers of Jesus, gathered in prayer and Christian solidarity, commemorated God’s forming ancient Israel under Moses’ leadership, they were overwhelmed by the deep realization of their own solidarity in the person and message of Jesus. They were deeply shaken by a group faith experience. The author of Acts describes their Pentecost experience in powerful images of wind, fire, and emotional murmuring (speaking in tongues).

I often think of the Pentecost event in connection with a much earlier biblical event we read about in Genesis 11:1-9: the primeval story of the Tower of Babel. There the ancient biblical author gives a dramatic explanation for human disunity and all the consequences flowing from it. The Tower of Babel tells of human arrogance and exaggerated self-sufficiency, in which people chose to create their own world apart from God.

Now compare Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and Pentecost (Acts2:1-1). It is like a before and after scenario. In his life and ministry, Jesus healed the divisions created by human weakness. Through the power of his Spirit in the community (which we later call the church) people who were once alienated from each other are drawn together. Confusion and division are replaced by understanding and cooperation. Distrust makes room for the Spirit’s gifts of harmony and peace.

The concrete images of the Pentecost event? I would say highly imaginative; but I stress that getting tangled up in that discussion can blind us to the MEANING of Pentecost.

I very much like the explanation of Joseph Donders (The Peace of Jesus, Orbis Books, Maryknoll 1983).

Donders compared the dramatic effects of Pentecost to fireworks. “But fireworks never carry the day. Fireworks lit up the night very beautifully but only for a fleeting moment. . . Before the story of Pentecost in Jerusalem was over, the apostles were in the streets working. . . breaking through the structures that kept them and the world in which they lived captive in all kinds of undesirable bondages.”

At Pentecost, the men and women of the early church energized and motivated by the Spirit, realized their mission was living and witnessing to their faith in the public square.

When we once again celebrate Pentecost, on June 8, 2014, may we be similarly energized and motivated!

(Next week some comments about church leadership and women religious. That indeed is about faith in the public square….)

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