This morning’s Gospel reading is John 20:19–23:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
What is forgiveness? That seems to be a question for these days, but it’s an especially good question on Pentecost. When we read about Pentecost, we mostly recall the miraculous ability of the disciples to speak in new languages to present the Gospel to travelers who had come to Jerusalem for the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot). The Holy Spirit had given them those gifts to complete their mission to spread the Good News to all nations. As we read in Acts, that miracle was impressive enough to convert many in short order, and it remains impressive to this day.
But what about the power to forgive? That is very much like the gift of tongues for the apostles. Both are gifts of reconnection, of restoring what has been lost. That, more than anything, is the purpose of the church — to restore what has been lost through man’s disobedience and stubbornness.
In yesterday’s Vigil Mass, we read from Genesis about the Tower of Babel, which people built in the years after the Great Flood. In this narrative, the purpose of building the tower is assumed to be confounding God’s will. Either the people wished to defy God and build so high that another punishing flood would not harm them, or they wanted to build a gateway to Heaven itself, in effect storming Paradise without the Lord’s permission.
The latter interpretation always appealed more to me, as it’s more or less the human story throughout the ages. Adam and Eve got exiled from the Garden of Eden because they wanted to usurp the Lord in understanding good and evil. Salvation history is littered with examples of God’s people being more interested in worldly power and politics than with doing His will. The Israelites and the Judeans constantly broke that connection between the Lord and themselves, and also broke connections with each other.
Let’s not lay all of this down on the ancients, either. Even after Jesus appeared, our history is also littered with peoples and nations who thought they could create a secular paradise, too, or change human nature through force. Every single attempt to do so brought nothing but oppression and misery, and in some cases widespread death and destruction. The lesson of Babel has never been taken to heart by humanity, no matter how many disasters such attempts create.
For that matter, we don’t even do so well with it on an individual basis. The lesson of Babel is that we too often try to make ourselves equal or superior to our Creator, and that is not just a sin of nations. How often do we negotiate with God’s Word rather than form our own hearts to it? We allow our free will to make choices we know to be sinful, and then our arrogance and shame lead us to argue that our desires shouldn’t be sins at all. In our own ways, we are all building our own towers to heaven in order to demand entrance on our own terms rather than the Lord’s.
And so, the Lord destroys the edifices of our arrogance in order to remind us of our humble nature. In Eden, He exiled Adam and Eve; in Babel, He exiled people from each other through the use of language. The Lord broke apart the human community and forced them into new, separated communities, with all of the misunderstandings and tensions that accompany language differences.
That makes the two gifts of Pentecost so important in combination. Both the gift of tongues and the sacrament of reconciliation offer the same promise to His lost sheep — reconnection, but reconnection through the Holy Spirit rather than human ambition and arrogance. We are being called back to God and given a path to reconnect our loving relationship with the Father. It is His way of calling us back from the conviction that I am the god of my own life to recognizing that God is my life — and therefore so is His family, all our brothers and sisters in Him.
Pentecost shows us the way back to Him, but also reminds us of His love for us, too. We are both the elder and younger brother in the parable of the prodigal son, and God is the Father who keeps the road open for our return. In this case, He has sent the Holy Spirit to our hearts and paved the road in anticipation. All it takes to reach true salvation is for us to step away from our own arrogance and disconnections, and take one step at a time back to our Father.
Veni, Sancte Spiritus — come, Holy Spirit, come!
The front page image is a detail from “Pentecost” by El Greco, c. 1600. On display at the Museo del Prado. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“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.