Pentecost – A Revolutionary Work of the Holy Spirit
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”Acts 2:5-13
This scene is repeating itself among us today. We too have come “from every nation under heaven,” and we are here to proclaim together “the mighty works of God.”
There is, however, something else to discover in this part of the story of Pentecost. Since ancient times it has been understood that the author of Acts – and this means first of all the Holy Spirit! – through this insistence on the phenomenon of tongues, wanted to make us understand, that at Pentecost something takes place that reverses what happened at Babel. The Spirit transforms the linguistic chaos of Babel into a new harmony of voices. This explains why the account of Babel in Genesis 11 is traditionally inserted among the biblical readings for the Pentecost Vigil.
The builders of Babel were not, as it was once thought, wicked people who intended to defy God, a kind of equivalent of the Titans of Greek mythology. No, they were pious and religious people. The tower they wanted to construct was a temple to the divinity, one of those temples with layered terraces called ziggurat, whose ruins can still be found in Mesopotamia.
“Let us make a name for ourselves”
What then was their sin? Let us listen to what they said among themselves when they started to work on it: “They said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth’” (Genesis 11:4).
Martin Luther makes an illuminating observation about these words:
“Let us build ourselves a city and a tower”: let us build it for ourselves, not for God… “Let us make a name for ourselves” – let us do it for ourselves. The people take no concern for the name of God to be glorified; they are concerned with making their own name great.
In other words, God is being exploited; he must serve their desire for power. They perhaps thought, according to the mind-set at that time, that by offering sacrifices from a great height they could win victories from the divinity over the neighboring peoples. This is the reason God was forced to confound their languages and derail their project.
This suddenly brings the matter of Babel and its builders very close to us. How many of the divisions among Christians have been due to a secret desire to make a name for ourselves, to elevate ourselves above others, to relate to God from a superior position in comparison to others! How many have been due to the desire to make a name for ourselves or for our own church more than for God! This is where our Babel comes from!
At Pentecost the gift of unity is given
Let us turn now to Pentecost. Here too we see a group of men, the apostles, who are preparing to build a tower that goes from earth to heaven, the Church. At Babel they still spoke one single language, but at a certain point people no longer understood one another; at Pentecost all the people are speaking different languages, but everyone understands the apostles. Why? It is because the Holy Spirit had brought about a Copernican revolution in them.
Before this moment the apostles were also preoccupied with making a name for themselves, and they often discussed “who among them was the greatest.” Now the Holy Spirit has shifted their focus away from themselves and refocused them on Christ. The heart of stone has been shattered, and in its place beats “a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). As Jesus had promised before leaving them, they were “baptized in the Holy Spirit” (see Act 1:5-8), that is, they were completely submerged in the ocean of God’s love that was poured out upon them (see Romans 5:5).
They are dazzled by the glory of God. Their speaking in diverse languages can also be explained by the fact that they were speaking with their eyes, with their faces, with their hands, with the amazement of people who have seen things too lofty to put in words. “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” The reason they all understood the apostles is that they were no longer speaking about themselves but about God!
God is calling us to bring about that same conversion in our lives – a conversion from ourselves to God, from the smaller unity of our parish, our movement, our own church, to the greater unity that is the unity of the whole body of Christ, indeed of all of humanity. It is the bold step that Pope Francis is urging us Catholics to take and that representatives of other churches assembled here demonstrate they want to share!
All Christians share the same Holy Spirit
St. Augustine had already made it clear that ecclesial communion takes place by degrees and can occur on different levels: from a full degree which consists in sharing both the sacraments and the interior grace of the Holy Spirit, to a partial degree that consists in sharing the same Holy Spirit. St. Paul included in his communion “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). This is a formula that we perhaps need to rediscover and go back to appreciating. Today that communion also includes our brothers and sisters who are Messianic Jews.
The Pentecostal and charismatic phenomenon has a specific vocation and responsibility in regard to the unity of Christians. Its ecumenical vocation appears even more evident if we think back to what happened at the beginning of the Church. What did the Risen One do to prompt the apostles to welcome the Gentiles into the Church? God sent the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his household in the same way and with the same manifestations with which he had sent the Spirit on the apostles at the beginning. Peter could therefore only draw the conclusion that “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17). At the Council of Jerusalem Peter repeated this same argument: God “made no distinction between us and them” (Acts 15:9).
Now we have seen this marvel repeated before our very eyes, this time on a worldwide scale. God has poured out his Holy Spirit on millions of believers who belong to almost all the Christian denominations and, lest there be any doubt about his intentions, he has poured out his Spirit with the identical manifestations, including the most unique one of speaking in tongues. We too are left to draw the same conclusion that Peter did: “If God then has given them the same gift he gave us, who are we to continue to say that other Christian believers do not belong to the body of Christ and are not true disciples of Christ?”
The Charismatic Path to Christian Unity
We need to look at what the charismatic path to unity involves. St. Paul outlined this plan for the Church: “speak the truth in love” (see Ephesians 4:15). What we must not do is bypass the issues of faith and of doctrine in order to be united in the sphere of shared action in evangelization and social issues. Ecumenism experimented with this path at its beginning and experienced its failure. Divisions inevitably resurface quite soon, even in the sphere of action. We must not substitute charity for truth but rather aim for truth with charity; we need to begin to love one another in order to understand each other better.
The extraordinary thing about this ecumenical path based on love is that it is possible at once; the way is completely open before us. We cannot “cut corners” concerning doctrine because there are indeed differences that are to be resolved with patience in the appropriate settings. However, we can skip some steps concerning love and be united right now.
It is the only “debt” that we have toward others (cf. Romans 13:8). We can welcome and love one another despite our differences. Christ did not command us to love only those who think the way we do and who fully share our creed. If we love only those people, he warned us, what is special about that since the pagans also do that? (cf. Matthew 5:46)
We can love each other because what already unites us is infinitely more important than what divides us. What unites us is the same faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Lord Jesus, true God and true man; the shared hope of eternal life; the common commitment to evangelization; the shared love for the body of Christ, the Church.
Another important thing also unites us: the shared suffering and shared martyrdom for Christ. In so many parts of the world, believers from different churches are sharing the same sufferings and enduring the same martyrdom for Christ. They are not being persecuted and killed because they are Catholic, or Anglicans, or Pentecostals or from some other denomination, but because they are “Christians.” In the eyes of the world we are already one single group, and it is a shame if we are not also that in reality.
Unity and Love
How do we concretely put into practice this message of unity and love? Let us recall St. Paul’s hymn of charity. Each of his phrases acquires a new significance when applied to love among the members of the various Christian churches in ecumenical relationships:
Love is patient…
Love is not boastful…
Loves is not rude….
Love does not seek its own interest (in our case, the interests of other churches as well). Love keeps no record of wrongs (in our case, the wrongs suffered from the hands of other Christians, but rather the wrongs done to them) (see 1 Corinthians 13:4ff)
St. Francis [of Assisi] in one of his Admonitions says, “Blessed is the servant who rejoices in the good that God does through others as if he had done it through him.” We can say, “Blessed is that Christian who is able to rejoice at the good that God does through other churches just as he is for the good that God does through his own church.”
A renewed outpouring of the Spirit starts with collective repentance
The prophet Haggai has an oracle that seems to be written for us in this moment of history. The people of Israel had just returned from exile, but rather than rebuilding the house of God together, each of them was building and adorning their own houses. God thus sends his prophet with a message of reproof:
Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little…. Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may appear in my glory, says the Lord. (Haggai1:4-8)
We need to hear how this same reproof from God might be addressed to us and to repent. Those who listened to Peter’s discourse on the day of Pentecost “were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, … and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’”(Acts 2:37-38). A renewed outpouring of the Holy Spirit will not be possible without a collective movement of repentance on the part of all Christians. It will be one of the main intentions of the prayer that will follow this time of sharing.
After the people of Israel set about rebuilding the temple of God, the prophet Haggai was once again sent to the people, but this time with a message of encouragement and consolation:
Now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you. My Spirit abides among you; fear not. (Haggai 2:4-5).
That same word of consolation is now addressed to us Christians, and I dare to make it resound again in this place, not just as a biblical citation but as the living and efficacious word of God that is bringing about here and now what it signifies: “Take courage, Pope Francis! Take courage, leaders and representatives of other Christian confessions! Take courage, all you people of God, and work because I am with you, says the Lord! My Spirit will be with you.”
This address was given during the Pentecost Vigil and Ecumenical Prayer at the Circus Maximus in Rome, Italy during the Golden Jubilee of Catholic Charismatic Renewal, June 3rd 2017.
Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle-Williamson
Top image credit: People following Christ in the way of the cross, image from Bigstock.com, © by Digital Storm , stock photo ID: 68349589.
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap. (born July 22, 1934) is an Italian Catholic priest in the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. He has devoted his ministry to preaching and writing. He is a Scripture scholar, theologian, and noted author of numerous books. Since 1980 he has served as the Preacher to the Papal Household under Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. He is a noted ecumenist and frequent worldwide speaker, and a member of the Catholic Delegation for the Dialogue with the Pentecostal Churches.