Before being a Christian feast,
Pentecost had been for centuries a Jewish feast.
Originally a festival celebrating the grain harvest,
it became the anniversary of the giving of the
Law to Moses. For the people of Israel the Law
of Moses meant freedom, liberation from slavery
in Egypt. It was one of the feasts when people
were expected to make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem
—of which the first reading reminds us— to renew
the Covenant between God and Israel.
Today’s gospel reading from
St John formed part of the gospel read on the
Second Sunday of Easter (Sunday 1 May last). In
the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles of St Luke
time after Easter builds up towards the coming
of the Holy Spirit. The appearances of Jesus happen
over forty days —the biblical shorthand for the
passage of time-- followed by separation at the
Ascension. As they come to terms with change in
their relationship with the Lord the disciples
gather in prayer around Mary the mother of Jesus.
The Lord has gone from sight and he sends the
Spirit in drama, fire and the rush of wind. For
St John everything is much more intimate. Jesus
appears in spite of the locked doors, sets them
at ease and breathes on them. He gives the Spirit,
face to face.
A line in today’s psalm reminds
us that spirit, wind, breath are covered by one
word, ruah: the sound of breath may be gentler
than that of the wind, but the power remains the
same, according to the readings. Breath is essential
to life, but cannot be grasped or seen or described.
Its presence or absence is only known in its effects.
In the Book of Genesis the Lord God breathed into
his nostrils the breath of life and [Adam] became
a living being. Similarly the Spirit cannot be
described except in actions. We can scarcely say
his actions since in Hebrew the word ruah is feminine,
even if in Latin spiritus is masculine.
The giving of the Spirit accompanies
the mission, that of being sent, to forgive or
to refuse forgiveness. Scripture teaches throughout
that pardon and mercy are part of God’s very being.
It is impossible to think that God our Father
in heaven might refuse to forgive us. The first
part of the mission then is clear, to share this
knowledge. But what can it mean to be sent out
with a mission on his behalf, and to refuse forgiveness,
to bear the responsibility of leaving the world
unaware of this forgiveness? If the power to forgive
was ‘breathed into the disciples’, the Spirit
of God prompts us (as in a play when the actor’s
memory fails), breathes within us the words of
pardon and understanding we need not just for
ourselves but for others. We are to be witnesses
to God’s pardon in the world. Is retention of
sin, leaving people in sin, to be the result in
spite of us?
• Originally for the Jews the festival of Pentecost
was one of rejoicing and thanksgiving. Might
I look back over life, to Baptism and Confirmation
and other occasions, and give thanks at Pentecost
for God’s Spirit at work in my life?
• One way of calming oneself for prayer is
to be aware of my breathing, not to change it,
just to be aware of it, easy, life-giving, and
full of power. This is the image given throughout
the Scriptures of the action of the Spirit of
• Forgiveness is a quality of God and a gift
of God. Yet it is placed in our care as a gift
for the world, fortunately given by and with
the Holy Spirit. How do I react to ‘being sent’
in this way, with my talent for feeling offended