“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?": Pentecost Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 15:26–27; 16:12–15:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth that proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me. And you also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.”

We have a tradition in our parish and diocese for Pentecost Sunday that warms my language-loving heart. For this one Sunday, at each of our Masses, our second reading is given in a foreign language, as a demonstration of the first gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles nearly two thousand years ago. We have had a number of languages over the years for this second reading; at last year’s Mass, a friend read it in Italian, which I understood well enough to recognize the scripture. Usually, it’s in a language completely outside my experience.

This year, it’s my turn to do the reading, to which I’ll return in a moment. It’s from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, explaining the gifts of the Holy Spirit and their equality and service to the one body of Christ. Much of 1 Corinthians is taken up with settling disputes and rebuking the wayward in Corinth, and among the disputes between them appears to have been over the relative value of the gifts. Paul addresses the misunderstanding of their meaning and purpose, among other issues in this lengthy instruction to the fledgeling church.

Paul analogizes these gifts to the body to underscore their connectedness to each other and to the body of Christ. “As a body is one though it has many parts,” he writes, “and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” The gifts are different forms from “the same Spirit,” and all given for the purpose of serving the whole body. “The body is not a single part,” Paul reminds the Corinthians, “but many. … If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” We are given gifts to bring to the whole body of Christ with common purpose, value, and respect.

The analogy of the body of Christ works beyond that in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Prior to Jesus, the Lord established Israel for the salvation of the whole world. Israel was to be a nation of faithful priests to whom the rest of the world would come to learn salvation. Unfortunately, Israel chose to pursue its own vision and purpose, and the Old Testament is filled with prophets’ warnings about idolatry and worldliness, which resulted in ruination after ruination.

Christ came to establish His church and reverse the process. Rather than having the world come to Israel to hear the Word of God, the church would carry it to the nations, and to the ends of the earth. His would be a servant kingdom, meant to embrace all of the nations as part of the one body of Christ rather than lose itself in worldly power and concerns.

This new mission gets its start at Pentecost, and also provides an intriguing parallel to Paul’s corporal analogies in Corinthians. The Holy Spirit delivers the gift of tongues to the apostles, allowing them to proclaim the Gospel in the native languages of those gathered for the feast. Pentecost was one of three major pilgrimage feasts of Israel, and travelers to Jerusalem would likely have had to accustom themselves to a language other than their first in order to participate in the rituals.

These pilgrims find themselves astounded to be addressed in their own languages, especially by Galileans who would not have been of an intellectual caste. They’re so astounded that a few of them conclude that the apostles are drunk. Paul rebukes them immediately afterward for their suspicions, noting that “it is only nine o’clock.” He instructs them that this gift signifies the power of Christ by fulfilling the prophecy of Joel, for the purpose of showing “the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” It is the moment in which the new Church boldly proclaims it central tenet of salvation — and does so in the native language of all who are in attendance.

This foreshadows the mission of the new Israel, the new Church. Not only will it go out into the world rather than have the world come to it, salvation will embrace all the different parts of the world with common respect and dignity. The gift of tongues to the apostles demonstrates that dignity and respect for others, allowing the apostles to bring the Gospel to people directly. Underlying that gift is the one love of Christ for us all, coming to us as we are in order to offer us salvation in Him.

What Paul writes to the Corinthians about differing gifts applies to the different communities of human beings as well. And in fact Paul does extend that analogy to people in our second reading: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”

Both readings remind us that we are to use these gifts to serve the one body of Christ. Whether our gifts are language, service, theology, organization, or anything else, those gifts are ours to use and enjoy. They will find their greatest fulfillment in the service of the Lord, though, and we will benefit most from our gifts and the gifts of all others by making ourselves into the one body of Christ. We both lift and are lifted together in that exchange, and brought closer to salvation in it.

That brings me back to today’s reading, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13. I’ll be delivering it today in Irish, the first time I will have done any public speaking in the language. I look forward to participating in this lovely tradition, even if it produces very puzzled looks from my fellow parishioners.

Nach féidir d’aon duine ach oiread “Is é Íosa an Tiarna” a rá ach amháin faoi anáil an Spioraid Naoimh. Tá tíolacthaí difriúla ann ach an t-aon Spiorad amháin; tá feidhmeannais difriúla ann ach an t-aon Tiarna amháin; agus tá oibreacha difriúla ann ach is é an Dia céanna a bhíonn á n-oibriú go léir i ngach ceann riamh acu. An léiriú a dhéantar ar an Spiorad i ngach duine ar leith, is chun tairbhe an phobail mhóir é.

Is aonad an corp agus mórán ball ann, ach dhá líonmhaire iad na baill ní dhéanann siad uile ach aon chorp amháin. Is é an dála céanna ag Críost é: mar cibé acu Giúdaigh nó Gréagaigh sinn, saor nó daor, baisteadh an uile dhuine againn leis an aon Spiorad amháin, isteach san aon chorp amháin agus as an aon Spiorad amháin tugadh deoch le hól dhúinn.

Note: For more on the remarkable background on 1 Corinthians, I’d highly recommend the commentary First Corinthians by George T. Montague, SM.

The front page image is a detail from “Pentecost” by El Greco, c. 1597-1600.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.