ColumnsSunday’s Word

Lord, send out your spirit

June 4, 2017

PENTECOST SUNDAY (Mass during the Day)

Acts 2:1-11

The first Pentecost

Ps 104:1, 24, 29-31, 34

Lord, send out your spirit

1 Cor 12:3-7, 12-13

The spiritual gifts

Jn 20:19-23

Receive the Holy Spirit 060417-day-mass.cfm

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The readings from Scripture are the same every year. Instead of reviewing them in a survey fashion, it might be interesting to look more closely at one of them. In particular, the story of the original Pentecost, in Acts of the Apostles, deserves some fresh attention. We are familiar with this story of the apostles in the upper room receiving the gift of the Spirit. But maybe it looks different upon closer inspection.

Luke is famous for using stories that not only teach distinct lessons, but also serve to further the work of his narrative. At the very beginning of Acts, in 1:8, Jesus tells the apostles before the ascension, “you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This turns out to be the program for Acts itself, as the mission moves outward into the world, like ripples in a stream (“Jerusalem,” 1:11-12; “Judea and Samaria,” 8:1-2; “ends of the earth,” 13:47).

Similarly, the Pentecost story looks forward to the narrative about to unfold. The many nations represent “the ends of the earth” to be reached in the mission.

There are two parts to the account. The first four verses tell of the event itself. The coming of the Spirit is told by means of two images—wind and fire. The wind, like the breath, involves the same word as “spirit.” The fire, on the other hand, is described as appearing in “tongues.” This allows a transition to the many “tongues” or languages.

The second part of the account (2:5-11) shows those languages at work in the speech of the apostles among the peoples of the world, also an interesting passage. In effect, it’s structured from two elements: a) a list of nations; b) a refrain-like assertion that makes the point that each hear the message in their own language. Luke insists on this, repeating it three times:

  1. 6: “At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language.”
  2. 7b-8: “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?”
  3. l1: “ … yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”

It is worth asking how we are to imagine this happening. How is it that each group heard the message in their own language and yet communicated this information to one another? First of all, how do they know that the others also hear the words in their own language? And then, how do they communicate this discovery to each other, if they are restricted to their own tongues?

Or perhaps they spoke to each other in a common language, such as Greek. Yet should this be the case, it only makes the lesson more insistent. If they all spoke Greek, different languages would be unnecessary.

We can well appreciate the question in the verse following the selection for today’s liturgy. It reads: “They were all astounded and bewildered, and said to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12) What indeed? Clearly, Luke wants us to ask.

It appears that Luke is trying to tell us something about the mission ahead. Different languages mean different cultures. Luke signals a need for immersion in the different cultures, rather than attempting to impose a single, uniform pattern upon them. It suggests a respect for local cultures that would make an effort to “incarnate” the message there. There too one might experience the “mighty acts of God.”

For reflection: How do we bring the message to different lands, each in its own “language”?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.