By Andrew Hamilton SJ
Pentecost Sunday recalls the time when the Holy Spirit came down on the Church. It also continues to remind us that, both in our personal lives and society, God does not do everything at once but works in stages. As we know with children who want everything now, when we do things in stages we need to remind ourselves that saying please, waiting and saying thank you are essential parts of our relationship with God and with one another. As we move through our time of trial with coronavirus, this aspect of Pentecost may help us.
Pentecost Sunday itself has three layers of stages built into it. In the Scriptures the day occurs on a Jewish feast day. The name of that feast includes the Greek word for fifty. The Jewish feast of tabernacles, or in Australian slang lean-tos, celebrated the end of the harvest. It was time to thank God for plenty. It was fifty days after the celebration of Passover, which marked the beginning of harvesting new crops.
Over these stages of food gathering the Jewish feast overlaid the story of God freeing the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and leading them to their promised land. The feast of Passover celebrated the night they prepared to cross the Red Sea into freedom. Fifty days later they celebrated their time waiting in the desert before entering the promised land. They were initially to spend the night in lean-tos made of branches, remembering how God had freed them from slavery. In Jesus’ time Jews from outside Palestine returned to the Temple to celebrate the Passover and Pentecost.
Our Feast of Pentecost overlays yet another layer of God’s work for us. At Passover, our Easter, Jesus died and rose from the dead to reconcile us to God. That is the beginning of the new harvest and the new freedom, not simply for Israel, but for the whole world. The feast of Pentecost represents the gathering of the harvest as the Gospel spreads out to the whole world. The whole community of Jesus’ followers is gathered in Jerusalem. They receive the baptism with fire and the Holy Spirit, and the Gospel is then preached to people from all over the world and heard in all their various languages. Pentecost completes what Jesus came to do.
These three layers represent successively God’s goodness in making and caring for the world of which we are part, God’s goodness in freeing the people of Israel, and God’s goodness in bringing freedom to the whole world through Jesus. Each of these layers involves stages: a beginning, then waiting and asking, and finally thanking God for a completion.
In Scripture Pentecost comes after the beginning of our freedom in Jesus’ death and rising at Easter. After a period of waiting and praying by the disciples, the Spirit set free the story for the whole world at Pentecost. On the Feast of Pentecost we remember what happened then, but we too wait and pray for the full salvation promised us when Christ will come again. In the church calendar Pentecost is followed by ordinary time – a time of waiting and praying.
At the time when this reflection is being written, it looks as if many of the restrictions under which the virus has placed us will be lifted by Pentecost Sunday. If that is true it will be a cause for celebration. But it will surely have been followed by a time of serious waiting, praying for a time of complete freedom from the virus and from the hardships that have weighed so heavily on many Australians. The rhythms of God’s work and our response correspond to the rhythms of our restricted life now, always lived with gratitude for God’s goodness and in hope of God’s freedom.