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Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin’s homily for Pentecost Sunday

May 31, 2020

Solemnity of Pentecost

Lady Chapel – Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart

The promise is fulfilled. The Spirit is poured out on the whole world, not simply on the leaders and prophets of ancient Israel, not exclusively on the 120 apostles and disciples and the Mother of Jesus, who were assembled in Jerusalem, when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled. The experience of those 120 men and women signify the experience of all the disciples of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen and now at the right hand of the Father. Let us think for a moment about how we experience the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

Early in the Gospel of John, Jesus begins to teach about the experience of the Holy Spirit. He tells Nicodemus: Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. (Jn 3, 5-6)

In this first lesson, Jesus does not define the Holy Spirit but rather describes it, using an image that is no stranger to any of us; Jesus tells Nicodemus: The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (Jn 3, 8)

Just as the origin and destiny of the wind is a mystery, we experience it. In the same way, life in the Spirit is being caught up in a mystery that is beyond one’s control.

The account of Pentecost uses dramatic imagery to describe the mystery of life in the Spirit: a rush of wind that shakes the house, tongues of fire that rest on each of the 120 disciples, unlettered fisherman and former tax collectors who apparently speak all the languages of the world, and a mob of curious people who understand them. There is also a dose of reality: those who demystify what they see and hear as only the blathering of drunks.

Both the first and second reading point out a feature of the Spirit-filled community that cannot be attributed to human effort. In this community, the members are diverse yet united. The Good News is heard in everyone’s language, but the result is not a Tower of Babel. Many gifts are given, and the result is not some sort of savagely selfish competition that foresees the survival of the fittest, the richest or the best educated. Rather the gifts given conspire to work together for the good of all. Real unity in diversity is beyond the human playbook without the experience of the Holy Spirit.

Then the passage from the Gospel of John uses another image to describe the gift of the Spirit. The gesture of Jesus on the night of that first day of the week, the first day of a new creation, can help us understand the tragedies that have unfolded over the last months. The Risen Lord greets his disciples with shalom – peace – which is not merely the absence of conflict but rather the conditions that make possible the full flourishing of human beings and all created things.

He greets them a second time with Shalom, Peace, and then…he breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit…”  The gift of the Spirit is something as essential as breath is to life. This is the second time Jesus has breathed forth the Spirit. The first was from the throne of his Cross. After declaring triumphantly, “It is finished”, he “handed over his spirit”, that Spirit will gather together His Mother, the disciple whom he loved and his few friends at the foot of the cross into his Body, the Church. Today the Risen Lord breathes again on the community of his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit…”

This gift is crucial today, for the people of our country are living an apocalypse. The Bible refers to different apocalyptic events. These are not exclusively descriptions or prophesies regarding the complete destruction of the world. The momentous or catastrophic happenings are foretold, not simply to scare the hearers or readers, but to warn them of serious trouble on the horizon. In the Word of God, an apocalyptic event often reveals powerful people who are bent on the exact opposite of a faithful, logical, loving response to the saving initiatives of God, who creates and redeems.

Preparing to celebrate this Pentecost, I became convinced that we must pay special intention to the crucial words and gesture of the Risen Christ, who bestows the Holy Spirit. For we are living dreadful events that paralyze and terrify precisely because they deprive human beings of breath. Today the responsorial psalm recalls fate of living creatures who are deprived of breath: they perish.

370,000 human beings across the world – more than 100,000 in the United States – have perished in the pandemic. The last conscious thought of many, probably most, must have been I can’t breathe. We know that, as he was dying on a Minneapolis street under the knee of his murderer, George Floyd gasped I can’t breathe. The news of these deaths and the destruction they have generated, literally takes our breath away. Frightened people often hold their breath. Panicked people must be told emphatically to breathe again.

Covid-19, the murder of George Floyd, the needless deaths of so many people of color, the shameless exploitation of social division for personal gratification or political gain – THESE ARE APOCALYPTIC EVENTS that are not meant simply to scare us – to take our breath away – but to warn us of serious trouble on the horizon as well as the true meaning the peril that is already among us. We desperately need to breathe, so that we can recognize that the efforts by people of great power to divide us are diametrically opposed to the plan God has for this world.

Like he did on the evening of that first day of the week, the first moment of a new creation, Jesus is here among his frightened disciples. He breathes on us the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is our Advocate, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it (Jn 14, 17). Today the faithful promise of the Risen One is again fulfilled, as he gifts his disciples with the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you (Jn 14, 26).

The Holy Spirit will create true unity in diversity and bestow gifts given for the life of the world. May Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God, the Mother of the Church who prayed with the 120 disciples on the first Pentecost, plead for us today, so that we can receive the Gift and breathe.