At Pentecost, the party is finally over. The fifty days of the Easter festival come to an end. The word “Pentecost” in Greek means “fifty days” to mark the seven weeks since the Passover feast.
The feast of Pentecost has deep roots that take us way back into the agricultural world of Canaan before the Chosen People entered the Promised Land. Passover itself marked the beginning of the harvest season with the first cutting of the barley crop. The harvest came to an end fifty days later when the wheat harvest was finished; and both the Canaanites and Israelites celebrated this as the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks.
After their entry into the Promised Land, the Israelites took the harvest festivals of Canaan and made them their own. The spring-time fertility festival became Passover and was tied to the exodus from Egypt. The Feast of Weeks fifty days later was tied to God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Sinai. And the autumn festival – called the Feast of Tabernacles or Tents – was tied to the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness when they lived in tents. The rhythms of nature were linked to the great events of salvation history. What had begun as Canaanite became Israelite.
But the story of Pentecost does not stop there. Because the early Church took what had become Israelite and made it Christian in another act of re-interpretation. Now it was not the giving of the Law on Sinai that was celebrated but the giving of the Holy Spirit, which brought the Law to its fulfilment. Now the harvest was not barley and wheat but what the Apostle Paul calls “the fruits of the Spirit” – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”, as Paul puts it in his Letter to the Galatians (5:22-23).
The Feast of Weeks was a time of joyful celebration, since God had once again given what was needed for life. In the ancient world, famine was a constant threat, and a good harvest was cause for celebration because it meant the difference between life and death. So too the Christians saw the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as making the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
The Feast of Weeks was also a moment of sharing with the needy the good things of the land, so that no-one went without. And the Christians saw Pentecost as the beginning of a great God-inspired sharing of the fruits of the Spirit with a very needy world. They saw it as the beginning of the Church’s mission, as we still do.
That mission continues to this day because God has not ceased to breathe the Holy Spirit into the Church. Without that Spirit, the Church would be a corpse, but with the breath of God within us, the Church becomes the Body of Christ – wounded it is true, but still radiant with the life that is bigger than death, the life of Easter.
At a time when we need to become more missionary, God is breathing the Holy Spirit into us in new ways. How could it be otherwise, given that God always equips those whom he calls? In a place like Australia, we may have too much to eat, but famine of a different kind still looms, more than ever in our great abundance. To become more missionary in a culture like this, we may need to turn away from abundance of one kind to find and share with others a different kind of abundance. We may need to say no to material abundance in order to find and share with others a genuinely spiritual abundance. That was certainly the inspiration of someone like St Francis of Assisi whom the new Holy Father has set before us by taking his name as Pope.
It was also the call of Jesus to the rich young man. You know the story: “A man came up to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 17 Jesus said to him, “… If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 20 The young man said to Jesus, “I have kept all of them. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go and sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this, he went away heavy-hearted because he had many possessions” (Matt 19:16-17; 20-22). This is the story of each of us. Called to say no to one kind of abundance for the sake of another, we baulk or turn away…and always end up heavy-hearted.
The theme of this year’s World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro is “Go and make disciples of all nations”. More clearly and urgently than ever Jesus is saying this to the Church now – not just to some in the Church but to the whole Church, including young people. Young people are not just the missionaries of the future; they are the missionaries of now. Just as Jesus called the rich young man to follow him, he is calling young people now. Just as St Paul chose the young Timothy to be one of the leaders of his missionary team (Acts 16:1-3), so young people are being chosen now. The rich young man could not bring himself to say yes, but Timothy was quick to answer Paul’s call, even though it cost him plenty. The rich young man went away heavy-hearted into oblivion: even his name is unknown. But Timothy stands forever as a joyful witness to the power of saying yes to the call and setting off on the missionary path, the path of eternal life.
On the wall of my office I have three small icons – St Antony of Egypt, St Benedict of Norcia and St Francis of Assisi. They are there because each of them was a disciple who brought to birth not only a new way of being Christian, but also a new form of human consciousness and eventually a new civilisation. Can one person make such a difference? Absolutely, if we look at the figures of Antony, Benedict and Francis – all of them young when they were called. We may be at a point now where we need a new Antony, a new Benedict or a new Francis. Their witness is not just a thing of the past; it is a thing of now, because the Spirit who moved in their lives is moving among us no less. Why should the same gifts not flourish, so that the whole world can enjoy the magnificent fruits of the Holy Spirit? The party may be over, but the work must now begin.
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane
Released in advance of Pentecost Sunday 2013