An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of Pentecost Sunday, Year B, John 20:19-23, May 27, 2012
ORIGINALLY, PENTECOST WAS an agricultural feast, during which the first fruits the land produced were offered (Exod 34:22), and was later associated with the giving of the Covenant, fifty days after the celebration of the Passover at the departure of Israel from Egypt (Exod 19:1-16). In the Christian dispensation, however, it is not, strictly speaking, a commemoration of the birthday of the Church, but rather celebrates the giving of the gift of the Spirit to the renewed Israel, which is the Church, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. It marks the giving of a new life—the life of the Spirit—to the community which Jesus began to establish through his life, ministry, but especially but his passion, death and resurrection. That is why, in the Gospel read for this feast, we are given a Johannine account of the giving of the Spirit: “Then he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22).
The giving of a new life has for its background the Genesis account and Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. The action of Jesus first of all recalls the story of God forming man out of the clay of the ground and blowing into his nostrils the breath of life, on account of which man became a living being (Gen 2:7). Under the influence of Greek philosophy, this has been taken in the past to mean the creation of the soul. But to the Hebrew mind, this simply means that it is Yahweh who gives life, and on whom human life directly depends. In Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, God instructed the prophet to prophesy to the dead bones so that a new spirit would revive the bones (Ezek 37:1-10). The vision is not really about the individual resurrection of the dead, but a visionary description of the new life that was to begin for the people of Israel. But what is important for us is the point that both stories emphasize--God gives a new life to his people.
And Pentecost precisely has that significance: the giving of a life—the life of the Spirit--to the renewed Israel, which is the Church. It may be recalled that because of sin, of turning away from God, misfortune fell on Israel: “Lo, the hand of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, it is your crimes that separate you from your God. It is your sins that make him hide his face so that he will not hear you” (Isa 59:1-2). Because of sin, Israel became a divided nation, was scattered all over the world, and it became a land of violence, evil judgment, lies, adulteries, usury, disregards for rights and other sins which created a social disorder. Such social disorder is aptly prefigured in the story of the tower of Babel. Because of man’s proud idolatry, of his arrogance in trying to build a tower, God chastised him; among others, he confused mankind. For the biblical writer, the diversity of languages was a consequence of sin, and it conveys the message that our economic, political, religious and cultural divisions and quarrels, our scrambling for power, intrigues, competition and envy result from our arrogance and proud idolatry.
In depicting the Spirit as being poured out at Pentecost, Luke wishes to affirm that the event overcame the division among men. The Holy Spirit inaugurated the reconstitution of Israel, fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy that God would gather again his people into one (Ezek 37:23). Pentecost signifies that Israel is now renewed. The people of the renewed Israel gather around the Lord who makes his dwelling among them (Ezek 37:28). The confusion at Babel (Gen 11:1-9) is replaced with unity at Pentecost (Acts 2:6). The nature of that renewed community is echoed by Paul: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with him. There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28). Luke pictures the unity in this fashion: “The community of believers was of one heart and one mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather, everything was held in common”(Acts 4:32). There may be diversity in the community, but it remains as one body (cf 1 Cor 12:12-13). However, the effect of Pentecost is not limited to the renewed Israel. Indeed, tomorrow, all the nations of the earth will experience this unity. This is why the Holy Spirit appears on the apostles in tongues of fire so that the gospel will be understood in the language of all the nations (Acts 2:6-12). The messianic community extends to all peoples. This is concretely manifested in the so-called “Pentecost of the pagans” (Acts 10:44-48).