Commentary on the Readings
Pentecost Sunday – Year C
The Spirit: Hope of a New World
The natural phenomena that impress most the imagination of man—fire, lightning, hurricane, earthquake, thunder (Ex 19:16-19)—are used in the Bible to describe the manifestations of God.
The sacred authors also used images to present the outpouring of the Lord’s Spirit. They said that the Spirit is a breath of life (Gn 2:7), the rain that irrigates the land and transforms the desert into a garden (Is 32:15; 44:3), a force that restores life (Ex 37:1-14), the rumble from the sky, wind that strongly blows, thunder, tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-3). All vigorous images that suggest the idea of an uncontrollable bursts of strength!
Where the Spirit comes radical upheavals and transformation always happen: barriers fall, doors are opened wide; all the towers built by human hands and designed by “the wisdom of this world” shake; fear, passivity and quietism disappear; initiatives are developed and courageous decisions are made. Who is dissatisfied and aspires the renewal of the world and of man can count on the Spirit: nothing can resist its power.
One day the prophet Jeremiah asked himself discouragingly: “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard his spots? And can you do good, you who are accustomed to do evil?” (Jer 13:23). Yes—one can answer him—every prodigy is possible where the Spirit of God erupts.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The Spirit of the Lord fills the earth and renews the face of the earth.”
Jesus promised his disciples that he would not leave them alone and that he would send the Spirit (Jn 14:16.26). Today we celebrate the feast of this gift of the Risen One.
Reading the passage from the Acts we are amazed by the numerous “prodigies” that occurred on the day of Pentecost: thunder and strong wind, flames of fire coming down from heaven, the apostles speaking different languages. We also wonder why God has waited fifty days before sending his Spirit upon the disciples.
To understand this page of theology (not news) we need to delve a little into the symbolic language used by the author. Luke places the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Yet, in today’s Gospel, John tells us that Jesus imparted the Spirit on the day of the resurrection (Jn 20:22). How does one explain this lack of agreement on the date?
We must say clearly: the paschal mystery is unique. Death, Resurrection, Ascension and the gift of the Spirit took place in the same moment, in the moment of Jesus’ death. Recounting what happened on Calvary on that Good Friday, John says, “he bowed his head and Jesus gave up the Spirit” (Jn 19:30).
Why then Luke presented this unique, sublime, ineffable mystery of Easter as if it had happened in three successive moments? He did it to help us understand the many aspects. John has placed the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Easter to show that the Spirit is the gift of the Risen One. Now we see why Luke situates it in the context of the feast of Pentecost.
Pentecost was a very ancient Jewish holiday, celebrated fifty days after Easter. It commemorated the arrival of the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. We all remember what happened in that place: Moses climbed the mountain; he encountered God and received the Law to be transmitted to his people. The Israelites were very proud of this gift. They said that before them, God had offered the Law to other peoples. They had refused it, preferring to continue with their vices and excesses. To thank God for this predilection, the Israelites had set up a feast: Pentecost. Saying that Spirit descended upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost, Luke wants to teach that the Spirit has replaced the old law and became the new law for the Christian.
To explain what he means we resort to a comparison. One day Jesus said: “Do you ever pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” (Mt 7:16). It would be foolish to imagine that surrounding the bramble with attention, pruning it, creating around it a milder climate would make it produce grapes. However, if—with a marvel of genetic engineering—one could turn it into a vine, then any external intervention would not be necessary. The bramble would spontaneously produce grapes.
Before receiving the outpouring of the Spirit, the world was like a big bramble. God had given people great directions—a set of rules, precepts, many recommendations. He expected fruits, the work of justice and love (Mt 21:18-19), but these have not arrived because the tree was bad: “No poor tree bears good fruit… and the evil person draws evil things from the evil stored in his heart” (Lk 6:43,45).
What did God do then? He decided to change the hearts of people. With a new heart—he thought—they would no longer have need of any external law. They would have done good by following the impulses coming from within them. Here’s what the law of the Spirit is: it is the new heart; it is God’s life. When it enters in a person, it transforms him and from bramble it becomes a fruitful tree, able to spontaneously produce the works of God. When a person is filled with the Spirit, something unheard of happens in him. He loves with the love of God himself. From that moment “he does not need someone to teach him” (1 Jn 2:27); he won’t require another law. John comes to say that the man animated by the Spirit becomes even incapable of sinning: “Those born of God do not sin, for the seed of God remains in them; they cannot sin because they are born of God” (1 Jn 3:9).
And what about the thunder, the wind, the fire? But it’s clear: we are going to see in the book of Exodus phenomena that accompanied the gift of the old law: “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud over the mountain. All the people in the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning and heard the blast of the trumpet and saw the mountain smoking” (Ex 20:18).
The rabbis said that at Sinai, on the day of Pentecost, when God gave the Law, his words took the form of seventy tongues of fire, indicating that the Torah was destined to all peoples (thought to be exactly seventy at that time). If the old law was given in the midst of thunder, lightning, flames of fire… how could Luke present the gift of the Spirit—the new law—in a different way? If he wanted to be understood he had to use the same images.
And the many languages spoken by the apostles? Probably Luke refers to a very common phenomenon in the early church. After receiving the Spirit, the believers began to praise God in a state of exaltation. As if in ecstasy, they uttered strange words in other languages. Luke has used this phenomenon in a symbolic sense to teach about the universality of the church. The Spirit is a gift meant for all persons and all peoples. Faced with this gift of God, all barriers of language, race and tribe collapse. On the day of Pentecost the opposite of what happened at Babel occurred (Gn 11:1-9) wherein people began to misunderstand and to distance from each other. Here the Spirit puts into action an opposite movement. He brings together those who are scattered.
Whoever lets himself be guided by the word of the gospel and by the Spirit speaks a language that everyone understands and everyone joins in: the language of love. It is the Spirit who transforms humankind into one family where all understand and love each other.
The rabbis of Paul’s time argued that man is pulled by two tendencies that drag him in two opposite directions. The good shows itself only at the age of thirteen while the bad, on the other hand, is present since conception and exercises its power ever since a person is in embryo. To counter it they suggested an antidote: to occupy oneself with the Torah, the Law of God. “If a despicable temptation comes your way—they taught their disciples—bring her to the house where the Torah is studied” and it will be rendered harmless.
Paul is more pessimistic. In the Letter to the Galatians he itemized a dramatic list of works resulting from the impulse to evil, from the evil force that he calls the flesh: “fornication, impurity, and shamelessness, idol worship and sorcery, hatred, jealousy and violence, anger, ambition, division, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies” (Gal 5:19-21).
He then diverges from the rabbis because he believes that the impulses of the flesh cannot be overcome or rendered harmless by the knowledge of the Torah. Man is then in a desperate condition, “does not do what he wants, but the very things he hates.” He agrees that the law is good but in him there is another law that is at war with the law of his mind and makes him slave of the law of sin which is in his member (Rom 7:14-23). Faced with this inability to remain faithful to God, Paul exclaims: “Who will free me from this being which is only death?” (Rom 7:24).
Certainly not the law—he answers—because, while being holy, it does not communicate to man the inner strength to resist evil. It can be compared to road signs for those who find themselves driving a battered car without petrol: it would not be of help, it would be there only to remind the unfortunate driver of his plight and the distance that separates him from the goal.
Only the gift of a divine force can radically change the situation. It is at this point that Paul introduces the subject of the Spirit that, penetrating into the depths of man, transforms the heart, communicates to him the energy of life, gives him the ability to be faithful to God. The consequence of this transformation is freedom from the bondage of sin.
In the first part of today’s reading (vv. 8-10) the Apostle develops this thought and deduces the moral consequences. Now—he reminds Christians of Rome—you are no longer at the mercy of the flesh but are moved by the Spirit of Christ. But those who close their hearts to the Spirit cannot please God and do not belong to Christ.
In the second part (v. 11) he highlights another remarkable effect of the presence of the Spirit of Christ in man: the ultimate defeat of death. It is true that biological life is destined to end one day, but it will not be the end of everything. The Spirit that raised Jesus and who dwells in us will give eternal life to our mortal bodies.
The Apostle makes a new, rapid recall of the moral consequences, which result from the new condition of those who have received the Spirit of Christ (vv. 12-13). From the baptized—he says—we expect works in harmony with the divine life that is in him. If he continues to “live according to the flesh” he would make choices of death.
Then, with moving words, he reminds the Christian believer that he is no longer a simple creature, nor a submissive slave to a master, but a son, because he has received from the Lord his own life. God not only has pitched his tent among us, but involved us in his life, as Peter explains to the Christians of his community: “His divine power has given us everything we need. We were given the most extraordinary and precious promises. Through them you share in the divine nature” (2 P 1:4). The inner impulse of the Spirit makes the heart overflow with irrepressible joy and cry: “Abba, Father” (v. 15).
At this point Paul feels the need to clarify the difference between the filiation of the only Begotten, Christ, and ours (vv. 16-17). He does this by using the image of sonship, an unknown institution in Israel, but widespread in Greek-Roman world where those who were adopted enjoyed the same rights as the biological children, including participation in family inheritance. Similarly, in fact, much more real—explains Paul—man is introduced by God in his “family”: he is gratuitously offered full sonship and the same “legacy,” the same beatitude of which the only Begotten of the Father enjoys.
The condition of the children of God is wonderful, but—as John recalls in his letter—“we are God’s children and what we shall be has not yet been shown. Yet when he appears in his glory, we know that we shall be like him, for then we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2).
We are at the Last Supper and the disciples realized that Jesus is about to leave them. Their hearts are troubled; they are sad and wonder what sense their lives will have without him. Jesus reassures them by inviting them to remain faithful to his first proposal of life (v. 15). Love will be the sign that they are in tune with him.
Then he promises not to leave them alone, without protection and without guidance. He will pray to the Father, and he “will send another Paraclete” that will remain with them forever (v. 16). It is the promise of the gift of that Spirit that Jesus possessed in fullness (Lk 4:1,14,18) and that will be poured out on the disciples.
The Spirit is called the Comforter, but this word is not a good translation of the Greek Παρακλήτος. Paraclete is a term taken from the forensic language and indicates someone who is called next to the accused, the defender, the rescuer of those in difficulty. In this sense, Jesus is the Paraclete, as noted by John in his first letter: “My little children, I write to you that you may not sin. But if anyone sins, we have an intercessor with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Just One” (1 Jn 2:1).
Jesus is the paraclete as our advocate with the Father, not because he defends us from the wrath of God—the Father is never against us, is always on our side—but because he protects us from our accuser, our adversary, sin. The enemy is sin, and Jesus knows how to reduce it to impotence.
Now he promises another Paraclete, who has not the task of replacing him, but to accomplish his very own mission. The Spirit is the Paraclete because comes to the rescue of the disciples in their struggle against the world, that is, against the forces of evil (Jn 16:7-11).
At this point a question arises: if the Paraclete is such a powerful defender, why does evil continue to prevail over good and why does sin so often dominates us? The Christians of the communities of Asia Minor at the end of the first century also wondered why the new world was not immediately established and in a prodigious way. Jesus answers these doubts and uncertainties: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make a room in his home” (v. 23).
Jesus wants to manifest himself, together with the Father, not through miracles, but by coming to dwell in the disciples. The Israelites believed that the place of God’s presence was the temple in Jerusalem. However, as early as King Solomon, a doubt that a house made of man’s hand cannot hold the Lord of the universe arose (1 K 8:27). Through the prophets’ mouth, God had promised that he would come to live among his people: “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for I am about to come. I shall dwell among you” (Zec 2:14).
He was not referring to a material sanctuary. It is in the man Jesus that God fulfilled the promise and has made himself present (Jn 1:14). Now—ensures Jesus—God dwells and is made visible in the disciple who loves as He loved. For this is not difficult to recognize if and when the devil is present in a man and when Jesus and the Father are instead present and act in him.
In the last verse, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, “the Paraclete who will teach and remind” all that he said (v. 26). Jesus said it all; he did not leave out anything, yet it is necessary that the Spirit continues to teach because he could not explain all the implications and practical applications of his message. In the history of the world—he knew—the disciples would always be faced with new situations and questions, which they had to answer in the light of the gospel. Jesus assures: if they will stay in tune with the promptings of the Spirit present in them, they will always find the answer in conformity with his teaching.
The Spirit will often ask for unforeseen radical changes, but will not lead to ways other than those indicated by Jesus. In the Scripture, the verb “to teach” has a deeper meaning. The Spirit does not teach in the same way a professor does in school when he explains the lesson. He teaches in a dynamic way, becomes an inner impulse, irresistibly pushes us in the right direction, stimulates the good in us, and leads us to make choices consistent with the Gospel.
“He will guide you into the whole truth”—explains Jesus at the Last Supper (Jn 16:13)—and, in his first letter, John explains: “You have received from him an anointing, and it remains in you, so you do not need someone to teach you. His anointing teaches you all things, it speaks the truth and does not lie to you; so remain in him and keep what he has taught you” (1 Jn 2:27-28).
The second task of the Spirit is to remind. There are many words of Jesus, which, despite being in the Gospels, run the risk of being forgotten or unmentioned. It happens, especially with those proposals that are not easy to assimilate because they are contrary to the “common sense” of the world. These are those that need to be constantly recalled.