Pentecost Sunday (20 May)

Hildegard of Bingen linked the Spirit with the notion of “greening” (viriditas). She imagined the outpouring of the Spirit in natural images like planting, watering and greening. In this she was following the example of the Scriptures where most of the images for the Spirit are earthy images. In the first reading for today from Acts, for example, we have the images of wind, fire, tongues, all very natural images. The same Spirit who was at work at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2) now hovers over this small group of disciples to bring forth new creation which they are to go out and share with the whole world.

The second reading from First Corinthians has the image of a human body to symbolise the unity which the Spirit would bring to the divided Corinthian community, cajoling them to use their gifts for the building up of the whole. In the Gospel (which is John’s version of Pentecost) Jesus breathed his own breath into the disciples, bestowing on them the Spirit. In the Responsorial Psalm it is the breath of the Spirit which gives life to all that is; we are given the image of the Spirit as “the breath of God that breathes life into the dust of the earth so that it becomes a living being. All the wonderfully diverse things of the planet, all that creep, crawl, run, hop, swim and fly are brought to life by this Breath of God. Everything comes from the animating breath” (Denis Edwards, Breath of God, Orbis Books, 2004, 35).

So, rather than imagining the Spirit as ethereal, out of this world, we are invited by today’s readings to think of the Spirit as the presence of the divine life within created life. The Holy Spirit is not a third party or a thing between God and us, but God’s personal closeness to us and to all of creation. Judaism has a wonderful word for that Presence, the Shekhinah, the indwelling of God with God’s people. They thought of that Shekhinah as being with them in all their triumphs and joys as a people, but also as being close to them in their times of sorrow. For example they spoke of the Shekhinah as going down in chains with them when they went into exile in Babylon. The sequence of today’s Mass picks up on that comforting presence of the Spirit in some of its verses: “Thou, of all consolers best, Thou, the soul’s delightful guest, Thou, refreshing peace bestow; Thou, in toil art comfort sweet; Pleasant coolness in the heat; Solace in the midst of woe…”

The Bayeux Tapestry: King Harold “Comforting” his Troops

An alternate Reading from the Gospel of John is given in the Lectionary for Year B: in it the Spirit is spoken of as the “Paraclete,” a word which has been translated in various ways, giving several different understandings of the relationship of the Spirit to us. The word “Paraclete” means “the One who is called alongside.” The usual translation of “Advocate” is clear from the first part of the chosen reading (John 15:26-27): the Spirit is the one who will testify on behalf of Jesus and will enable the disciples also to testify to him. The second part (John 16:12-15) speaks of the Paraclete as “Teacher” and “Guide.” In the King James Bible the translation of “Paraclete” is “Comforter.” That would seem to link us nicely to the comforting mentioned in the Sequence of the Mass, but when that translation of the Bible was made the word, “comforter,” had rather a different meaning – it was the stick or goad used to get horses or cattle to move! In the Bayeux tapestry, for example, the king is shown as prodding his reluctant troops into battle. We can think of the Spirit, then, as something like a “Trainer.” Athletes often have their personal Trainers who get them fit for a race by a strict regime of dieting and running. Thinking of the Spirit as “Trainer” could call us today to the discipline we need to follow Christ in our threatened world, which brings us right back to the first reading of the Mass from Acts. The Spirit comes to the first disciples not just to comfort them at the departure of Jesus, but to goad them into action: they are to spread the name of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Sr. Celine Mangan OP

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