They marvelled to see such things; they were astonished, and suddenly cast down. Fear came there upon them; and sorrow, as upon a woman in her travail. (Psalm xlviii. 4,5)
One day in the future men will look back at our age and describe it as the time when man had forgotten his past. In general we shall be judged as those who had little or no respect for the wisdom of our fathers, and in particular as those who spent their lives running away from the truth. Because of both, we shall be known as those who forfeited any meaningful future. William Wordsworth once said, Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future. But Wordsworth was a Christian, and authentic Christianity, we must admit, is the most feared and despised of all religions in this dark age of ours. Why? Well, because it demands that every man face his past, cull it into the present, name it, claim it, repent of it, and open himself up that sanctification that promises better life in the future. Authentic Christianity is something that our world cannot bear; our world hates the past, and never more passionately than when it creeps into the present to judge and measure us, to reveal to the world why we are not as hale and hearty as we pretend to be.
Pentecost or Whitsunday is all about the past, present, and future. Pentecost helps us to see who we have been and what we have done; Pentecost teaches us who we are now; Pentecost calls us forward into a spiritually informed future. Today we read about the first Pentecost in the cenacle –or upper room, in the Acts of the Apostles. Monsignor Knox describes the setting in this way: A room haunted with memories –through that door did Judas Iscariot slink out into the night…on that table the consecrated chalice reposed; through that window they listened to the shouts of ‘Crucify Him’; that floor had been trodden by impassible feet. It was in this room that the Holy Ghost visited His people on the day of Pentecost. (Pentecost: R. Knox) It was in this room that both good and evil battled in response to Christ’s impending Passion. It was in this room that one man betrayed our Lord, another sought refuge having denied Him thrice, and the rest remained huddled together for fear of the Jews. It was in this room that the past events of the Last Supper and the Foot Washing were about to become the signs and badges of the Apostles’ common life and Christian future. In was in this room that past sin would be remembered so that future hopes could be realized in the new life that the Holy Spirit would bring. If man is to be redeemed and saved, the past must always mold and shape the future in the present. Each of the Apostles would bear about in his life the forgiveness of his past sins, the sanctification of his present predicament, and the redemption for his future glory.
So perhaps we should turn to our text in order to examine how this process all began at the first Pentecost.
WHEN the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilæans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, where in we were born? (Acts ii. 1-8)
What jumps out at most Christians immediately are the rushing mighty wind, cloven tongues like fire, then speaking in [other] tongues. What they are taken with mostly is the vigorously aggressive, paranormal, transcendent, and otherworldly dynamism of the Holy Ghost. And so they tend to conclude that the Apostles were swept up into a chaotic, disordered, even anarchic Dionysian irruption of emotion and passion that defied all reason. And so their response is akin to the eyewitnesses [who] were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? Or with the others mocking, saying, these men are full of new wine. (Acts ii. 12, 13)
But a more cautious reading of the text reveals an ordered and providential sanctification of the past, in the present, and for the future. This was the day of Pentecost, the Feast of Weeks, on which devout Jews from all over the world descended upon Jerusalem to commemorate God’s giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Holy Spirit only ever comes to sanctify those who gather to thank God for past mercies and future Grace. And so we read that [the Apostles] were all with one accord in one place. (Idem) They were of one mind, united in purposive prayer, in one place, watching and waiting, honoring one past, loving one another, and praying about the future. For that blessed Dove comes not where there is noise and clamour, but moves upon the face of still waters, not the rugged ones. (M. Henry) This particular Pentecost fell on the first day of the week. The pouring out of His Spirit that gives birth to the Church will bring Christ’s recent Resurrection into the present. Even when the sudden sound from Heaven, as of rushing mighty wind (Idem) fills the Cenacle, the Spirit fills the Apostles with fear as they remember the words of John Baptist: He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and fire. (St. Matt. iii. 11) And so tongues of cloven fire gently rest upon their heads making time past present. Matthew Henry tells us that the Spirit, like fire, melts the heart, burns up the dross, and kindles pious and devout affections in the soul. (Idem) And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts ii. 4) What could have broken down into confusion and chaos was, as it turned out, ordered, disciplined, and singular. The Holy Spirit translated one message of the wonderful works of God (Acts ii. 14) in Jesus Christ to devout men out of every nation, and to every man in his own tongue. (Idem) To the Apostles the past experience of Holy Week and Christ’s Eastertide teaching were just now beginning to be comprehended and understood. God’s power, wisdom, and love were making sense of the past. For, as Monsignor Knox reminds us, In those six weeks before Pentecost the Apostles had already lived through, as it were, the whole cycle of Church history; there was nothing callow, nothing tentative, nothing inexperienced about their methods from the very first. And because she was born old, the Church remains ever young. (Ibid) What the Apostles experienced was nothing short of the old man being made new and the historical past being transformed and redeemed in the present and for the good of the future. And so belief led to repentance, repentance opened to obedience, obedience elicited knowledge, and knowledge reached forth towards its future in God.
But they could endure this only because they had slowly and patiently allowed the work of God the Holy Spirit to teach them the truth and to change their lives. They remembered the words that Jesus had spoken to them in the Upper Room: If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth (St. John xiv. 15, 16) Because they loved Jesus they began to keep His commandments. With His departure, He had generated within them the deepest need for permanent comfort and the ongoing illumination of His Holy Spirit. They began to realize that the greatest blessing spiritually is to know that we are destitute; and [that] until we get there, Our Lord is powerless…As long as we are rich, possessed of anything in the way of pride and independence, God cannot do anything for us. It is only when we get hungry spiritually that we receive the Holy Spirit. (The Bounty of the Destitute: O. Chambers) St. Thomas Aquinas, tells us that the Holy Spirit, whom they embraced and increasingly desired, conveys to man four operations: Subtleness of substance, perfection of life, impulse of motion, and hidden origin. (Sermon: Emitte Spiritum) So the subtle, perfect, active, invisible, immaterial, and intangible Spirit passes through physical nature in order to penetrate the soul. Then the Spirit perfects the soul by purifying knowledge and affection. Then He moves a man to embrace the holiness that He sees in Jesus Christ. Then he reveals His hidden origin in the Father’s desire and the Son’s wisdom. So the hidden and invisible Divine cause, through the motions of eternal love, perfects and sanctifies the Apostles by refining and rendering them subtle and contemptuous of all temporal and earthly things.(Idem)
Jesus says that the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (St. John xiv.) The Holy Ghost will illuminate the past so that in the present we might repent, believe, and understand. The Holy Ghost will bring the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ to life in our hearts as He speaks death to our sins. As members of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, the Holy Ghost longs to mold and shape us into the instruments of His unselfconscious holiness. The Church is neither new nor old, but eternal….For her Pentecost is continually repeating herself, making all things new, (Pentecost: R. Knox) for those who know that they can be perfected and made new only by God’s Holy Spirit, and so long as they have not forgotten how to be sorry. (Repentance: O. Chambers)
And on this day let us remember, with the Apostles, that if a man speaks in a tongue that is unknown to him, it is sure indication that someone else is speaking through his mouth. (Claudel, ‘I Believe’) If the Holy Ghost begins to speak through us, Christ Jesus Himself will be heard, and Christianity’s past will no longer be dead but alive in a present that is redeeming the time for a future when the wonderful works of God shall be crowned with glory. Amen.