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Pentecost and the Fires in Our Cities

May 31, 2020


It is in a way providential that the Feast of Pentecost arrives this year just as our country is going through a convulsive social crisis. For the Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate on Pentecost, is a power meant to transform the world, or in the language of Psalm 104, “to renew the face of the earth.” Pentecost, accordingly, is never simply for the Church; it is for the world by means of the Church.

One of the principal biblical metaphors for the Spirit is the wind, and indeed, on Pentecost morning, the Apostles heard what sounded like a strong driving wind as the Spirit arrived. But the wind, elusive and unpredictable, is never really known in itself, but only through its effects. On the scriptural reading, the first effect of the Holy Spirit is the formation of an ekklesia (a church), which in turn is designed to transform the wider society into the Spirit’s image. In the words of the Nicene Creed—accepted by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians—this ekklesia is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The wind of the Holy Spirit produces these qualities, and therefore, it is by them that the Spirit’s action is discerned. So let us analyze them one by one.

The Acts of the Apostles gives us the great icon for the unity of the Church in the picture of the Apostles gathered in prayer in one place with the Virgin Mary on Pentecost morning. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than the love that connects the Father and the Son, which explains why one of his great titles in the tradition is vinculum amoris (chain of love). Thus the Spirit draws all of the followers of Jesus together in unity. This is not an oppressive or imperialistic oneness, for indeed there is a marvelous variety of personalities, theological schools, and pastoral emphases in the Christian community. But in essentials, the community of Jesus is meant to be united, and in that unity to find its power to unify the world. Origen of Alexandria said “ubi divisio ibi peccatum” (where there is division, there is sin). Consequently, the Church’s missionary task is to overcome division, wherever it might be found. The night before he died, Jesus prayed “that they might be one, as you, Father, and I are one” (John 17:22). In this prayer, he intended not just the Church to become one, but the world by means of the Church.

Secondly, the Church is meant to be holy, and it achieves this quality precisely in the measure that it is filled with the Holy Spirit. And since the Holy Spirit, as we saw, is none other than the love the connects the Father and the Son, holiness consists in love, which is not an emotion, but the act of willing the good of the other. Everything in the life of the Church—sacraments, the Eucharist, the liturgy, preaching, the witness of the saints, etc.—is meant to inculcate love. I will confess that I frequently shake my head ruefully when I come across Catholics on the internet, who profess passionate commitment to the sacraments, doctrines, and practices of the Church, and who yet are obviously filled with hatred. I want to tell them, “You know, all of your devotions are fine, but in your case, they’re not working!” Did not Jesus himself say, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35)? Willing the good of the other is the great flag of the Holy Spirit.

In the third place, the Church is marked by catholicity, a word derived from the Greek phrase kata holos (according to the whole). By its very nature, the ekklesia of Jesus is universal in scope and mission, for it is meant to bring the whole world to Christ. Jesus said, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), and that when the Son of Man is “lifted up,” he “will draw all people” to himself (John 3:14, 12:32). To be sure, there is a terrible history regarding attempts to achieve this unity through violence and imposition, but that is simply the story of how nominal Christians refused to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. What is most important to see in this regard is that the Church’s task is to be light, salt, and leaven for the whole society (kata holos), never suppressing the plurality of cultures, but at the same time, bringing them under the influence of the divine love.

And finally, the Church is apostolic. The word “apostle” is derived from the Greek apostelein, which means “to send.”  The original twelve Apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit and then sent into the world to evangelize. Though they received the Spirit while they were hunkered down in the Upper Room, they were never meant to stay hunkered down. From the beginning, there has been an expulsive, centrifugal energy to the ekklesia, an instinct for the ends of the earth. The original flame of the Holy Spirit was meant to become a conflagration, for Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” (Luke 12:49). One of the principal themes in the writing and sermonizing of Pope Francis is precisely this missionary nature of the Church. He wants believers in the Lord to leave their sacristies and get out onto the streets, to stir things up, even to overturn what needs overturning.

All of which brings me back to the situation in which we find ourselves this Pentecost. The riots and unrest which are convulsing our country were prompted by the killing of George Floyd, to be sure, but their deeper cause is the racism—systemic and personal—that has bedeviled our society for over four hundred years. Though undoubted progress has been made in the course of these four centuries, there is still irrational hatred in the hearts of far too many in our country. And for all the years that racial tension and violence have endured—from slavery and segregation to the racism both overt and indirect that obtains today—the overwhelming majority of people in our land have been Christians—which is to say, people baptized into the divine life, filled, at least in principle, with the Holy Spirit. In the measure that the scourge of race hatred remains, therefore, we know that the ekklesia of Jesus has not been fulfilling its mission, has not been living up to its identity. If Christians have been the dominant presence in our country for all of these centuries, why isn’t there more unity? Why isn’t there more love? Why is it painfully obvious that so few of us have really gone on mission?

May I offer a challenge to all the members of the ekklesia today, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox? Celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit this Pentecost, but then get out of the Upper Room! Light the fire of love in the streets, in the halls of government, in the world of communication, in business and industry, in schools, and in the hearts of your friends and neighbors. The stubborn survival of the awful cancer of racism in the body politic proves—and I say it to our shame—that we have not been the ekklesia that the Holy Spirit wants us to be.