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Diebus Saltem Dominicis: Pentecost Sunday – Rise, Let Us Go Hence

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For this mighty Feast of Pentecost we first scrabble after some context to enrich our participation.  The sacred liturgical celebration of the mysteries of our salvation make us present to them and them to us.  Sacramental reality is not inferior to sensible reality.  Indeed, it embraces and elevates it and us, it transforms us.  In the strongest sense possible, we are our rites.  Therefore, we are never deeply content without deepening content, which includes context, even from the depths of history.

Pentecost stems from the Jewish Spring Festival of (and there are spelling variants) “Shavuot… Weeks”.  This is one of the three great annual obligatory pilgrimage festivals.  Shavuot celebrated both the reception of the Ten Commandments by Moses at Mt. Sinai after the deliverance of the people from Egypt, as well as the first fruits (bikkurim) of the wheat harvest.  According to the Jewish convert and Biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim (+1889), “The ‘Feast of Unleavened Bread’ may be said not to have quite passed till fifty-days after its commencement, which it merged in that of Pentecost”.  At Passover, there were presented to God two sheaves of the first barley which were waved as an offering.  At Pentecost there was a wave offering of two loaves.  Again Edersheim:

the memorial of Israel’s deliverance appropriately terminated in the giving of the Law – as, making the highest application of it, the Passover sacrifice of the Lord Jesus may be said to have been completed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

And again Edersheim:

To us the Day of Pentecost is, indeed, the ‘feast of firstfruits,’ and that of the giving of the better law, ‘written not in tables of stone, but on the fleshy tables of the heart,’ with the Spirit of the living God.’ For, as the worshippers were in the Temple, probably just as they were offering the wave-lambs and the wave-bread, the multitude heard that ‘sound from heaven, as of a mighty rushing wind,’ which drew them to the house where the apostles were gathered, there to hear ‘every man in his own language’ ‘the wonderful works of God.’ And on that Pentecost day, from the harvest of firstfruits, not less than three thousand souls added to the Church were presented as a wave-offering to the Lord. The cloven tongues of fire and the apostolic gifts of that day of firstfruits have, indeed, long since disappeared. But the mighty rushing sound of the Presence and Power of the Holy Ghost has gone forth into all the world.

The context for the Gospel Reading is the Farewell Discourse of the Last Supper, during which Christ speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit.

At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words; and the word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father.

We can tease out several strands from this reading for today’s ramble.

As a side note, the Gospel reading from John 14 ended with verse 31a.  The conclusion of the verse reads:

31b Rise, let us go hence.

A word about the “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” issue.  Which is it?  Let’s untangle that thread.

It is hardly to be doubted that we English speakers have traditionally used Holy Ghost because of early English translations of Holy Writ, namely the King James and the Douay Rheims versions even though both those Bibles use both Ghost and Spirit.  The supremely influential KJV capitalized “Ghost” when it was certain that it referred to the Third Person of the Trinity.  Our English “ghost”, related to German Geist (which is used in German for the Holy Spirit), in its roots is any sort of spirit.  “Ghost” is used often to translate Biblical Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus.  It became a matter of common parlance and traditional prayers, which people memorized and handed down.  We sang and still sing hymns – mighty memory markers – with Ghost.

We should feel free to use archaic words in our prayers, private and congregational.  Prayer should be from and of the heart, but we can use the richness of our language to express ourselves also in solidarity with our forebears.  There’s nothing wrong with using unusual or out of date language in our prayers.  This is how Christians have prayed since, for example, the shift to a highly stylized Latin in Rome, a Latin which was decidedly not the “vernacular” (from Latin verna, a native slave born within the house rather than abroad).  Vernacular came to indicate national language or mother-tongue, but liturgical Latin was not what was spoken in the houses and streets by our forebears.  The choice of the Church was a form of Latin redolent of ancient prayer, filled with ornamental tropes, technical and philosophical vocabulary and images which was, so-to-speak “baptized” to express an ever-deepening identity and theology.

In the Gospel (above), which you surely read, perhaps aloud and with great attention and reverence, you will have seen and heard how the Lord speaks of the unity of the Father and the Holy Spirit and His own divine Person as Son.  Present in this Gospel reading is a weaving thread of the central mystery of Christianity, the Most Holy Trinity.  God is not only Father, not only Son, not only Spirit.  God is all Three, distinct but in perfect unity.  Christ specifies that the one coming, the Holy Spirit, has the Father’s word distinct from His own, which underscores the difference of the Persons in their unity.  It is not for nothing that the week after Pentecost, which so underscores the Holy Spirit, we should have Trinity Sunday.

By Baptism, God makes His home with us, indwells us.  Something in which God dwells is a temple, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, for example, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, which you have from God” (1 Cor 6:19).  The “dwelling” of God with His people, once in the glory cloud of Sinai (which Jewish Pentecost or Shavuot commemorated) and the Tent or Tabernacle of Meeting (which transformed Moses so he was too bright to look at unveiled), is also in the same Gospel’s Prologue read at the end of Mass in the Vetus Ordo: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.  How fitting it is that, after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday we have Corpus Christi in honor of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist.

Another thread in the Gospel to tug on is common confusion around the Lord saying that “the Father is greater than I”.  This is not an admission of Christ being less than God.  Rather, it is and it isn’t.  Christ is God in His divinity.  However, of the Three Divine Persons, only the Son has also a human nature, which is a lesser nature than divine.  Hence, Christ is equal to the Father in His Divinity, but less than the Father in His humanity.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate the breathing of the life of the Holy Spirit into the fabric of the Church 50 days after Christ’s resurrection and 10 days after His Ascension.  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth who can live in an abiding and habitual way within us, whereas the Lord, with His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, abides in us only for a short time.

The Holy Spirit was given to us at Baptism and deepened in us at Confirmation, a sacrament distinct from Baptism.

For those of you who are confirmed, remember your dignity as being sealed with the Holy Spirit, which placed a mark on your soul that will last for eternity.  The effects of Confirmation are an increase in sanctifying grace and the conferral of the power and of the right to perform actions which are necessary in the spiritual battle against the enemies of the Faith.  We need this in our times more than ever.  And lest we doubt there are Enemies of the Faith, just consider what happened recently when a young Catholic gentlemen and family man gave a commencement address to young people in which he recommended what he has found to bring him peace and success.  There has risen up against him virtual spittle-fleck mobs, also within the Church.  We are now in a time when people cannot endure what is entirely normal and sound (cf. 1 Tim 4:3).  We must be ready and strong, relying – when the trials come – on our firm Faith, our Tradition, the sacraments, and each other.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

Now, arise and let us go hence.

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