When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
On those summer afternoons where the air seems to heavy to move, we long for its touch. On those stormy nights, with the pines in our backyards bent double from its fury, we long for its departure. It brings us the sweet aroma of wisteria in the early spring, or the warning that rain is coming in the vague scent of wet dust slipping into our nostrils. Its very invisibility lends to its mystery.
The images of ancient religious stories remind us of both the creative and destructive power of the wind. In the Hebrew account, which we are reminded of in today’s Psalm, the “wind of God” moves over the surface of the water which covers the earth. As it blows, the continents rise up and life springs forth. Later, as Yahweh creates the first man out of the red clay of the earth, He breathes into his nostrils the “breath of life” and the man lives. After the great flood, in an act of second creation, the divine wind once again blows away the waters, leaving an earth cleansed and ready for life. At the Exodus, Moses stretches out his arm and the wind causes the Red Sea to part before the children of Israel. Elijah, hiding in a cave, strains to hear the voice of God in the windstorm. Satan, unleashing a tempest, collapses Job’s house, killing his ten children.
And in Luke’s story of the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Jesus, the wind blows through an upper room overlooking a great courtyard, and another creation begins. Just as the Genesis wind creates and recreates, this wind creates too. Men and women who only days before huddled in fear of the religious power structure are now publicly declaring that they had seen Jesus, raised from the dead. It is quite a sight.
Jerusalem is filled with tourists from all over the empire—gathered there for an ancient spring feast. The word ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek; it simply means ‘fiftieth’. Pentecost Sunday ends the season of Easter; it is the Sabbath after a week’s worth of weeks (7 x 7 = 49).
Pentecost grew from what was originally a festival marking the first grain harvest of the Middle Eastern year, marked by a sacrifice to the gods from the “first fruits” of that harvest. In very ancient Palestine, this first-fruit sacrifice was tightly tied into the religions of the gods of power and fertility (both in farming and in sex). As the Jews grew to understand themselves as followers of the one and only true God, they created ways to be thankful to God for the first harvest, without the pagan trappings. The celebration became a mini-pilgrimage, where they would stay at their region’s shrine, bringing with them grain loaves and young livestock for sacrifices. As the Jewish kings started to centralize religious activity into Jerusalem (a process that took several centuries), this pilgrimage and sacrifice was brought there, with all the songs, processions, liturgies and pageantry that Jerusalem did so well. To them, the 50-day period was the week’s worth of weeks after the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Passover. Passover recalled the Jewish release from slavery, hence the unleavened bread and bitter herbs; Pentecost was the celebration of a blessing of harvest and the aroma of rising bread filled the air. The festival began to take on another religious role around the time of the Exile. Because Exodus 19:1 describes the arrival of the Jewish people at Sinai as being at about that time of year, Pentecost was used to mark the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
This particular Pentecost was the last to mark the unrivaled existence of traditional Judaism. A new wind was blowing, filled with promises of new life, of resurrection, of healing and forgiveness. Even more, this day took the promise of the wind of God, which blew across the surface of the whole earth as a promise that God was present, not just in the temple of the Jews, but everywhere and to anyone who listens for God.
The Spirit which is poured out that day is manifested in a miracle—no matter the language people spoke, they could hear the message spoken by Galilean fishermen. It is a reversal of what happened at the dawn of human society: the Jewish story says that on the plain of Shinar in the ancient city of Babel, later called Babylon, Yahweh confused the language of a humanity bent on proving its technological prowess and thus arose the tribes and tongues which even now separate people who are not listening for God. But in the Pentecostal wind, humanity is knit back into essential oneness. Those who breathe in the Spirit’s breath, discover that they, like the earth it warms and cools, are renewed.
The great lay theologian William Stringfellow wrote, “In contemporary culture, though there is much sound, a clamor of noises, and a vast and complex profusion of words, there seems to be precious little listening amongst human beings. There is—literally— babel instead of communication; there is frustration instead of relationship, there is violence instead of love…To transcend the babel, to have, as Jesus often mentioned, the ears to hear the Word, it is essential…to listen.” When we listen, we will hear the message of unity for all people.
St. Paul writes , “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Today’s Gospel is set weeks before the day of Pentecost, but it is John’s way of telling the same story. “Peace be with you,” says Jesus. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And he blows upon them the wind which creates a new society out of the shattered remnant of the old. In this new world order, created by the unity of the Spirit, people have the power to forgive and to move beyond the false divisions of language and culture that keep alive hate masquerading as heritage. It is the wind of peace.
As the Father sent Jesus, Jesus through the Spirit now sends us out into the world rejoicing in the power of God. Let us listen, let us hear. Let the Pentecostal wind renew us and make us whole. Let us the tell the whole world: we are all one in the Spirit. Happy Pentecost.