Dedicated to Research and Reflection in Formative Spirituality




About Us Programs Staff Links Contact Us



May 24, 2010

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

               ~ I Cor. 12: 13

The first reading for the liturgy of Pentecost Sunday from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2: 1-11) relates in vivid and highly allusive scriptural imagery the gift of the Spirit.  It is, as in the creation account of the first chapter of Genesis, in the power of a mighty wind that the Spirit of God is manifest.  As in Genesis the creative Spirit of God brings light out of darkness and order out of chaos, so in Acts the arrival of Spirit brings inner light and  clarity to the darkness and confusion in those who find themselves living the experience of Jesus’ absence.   The second allusion is to the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9.   In the Scriptural account of the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise, the action of Spirit involves the reversal of God’s punishment at Babylon.  The story of the Tower of Babel is, at its core, a reiteration of the story of the Fall.  In this mythic account, the dispersion of peoples, our inability to understand each other, is due to our refusal to accept the reality of our shared humanity and the limits of our being human.  As Adam and Eve fell prey to the temptation to “be as gods,” the people of Babylon similarly succumb to what Adrian van Kaam calls “inverted awe,” that is, they become awe-filled at their own capacities, specifically, their “technological” capacities.  They attempt to reach the heavens by building a tower, to claim by force what can only be received.  As a punishment, the Lord says to his divine cohort: “Come, let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that they will not understand what they say to one another.” (Gen. 11:7)  In the second chapter of Acts, God’s Spirit comes down and reverses the punishment of Babel:  “Why, they are all Galileans, are they not, these who are speaking?  How is it then that we hear them, each in our own native language?”  (vs. 7-8)  We who receive the Spirit of God, given through Jesus, are restored to the depths of our common humanity and thus to our kinship as children of God.  With our disposition of awe restored to its proper Divine object and by that restoration our capacity to recognize and to live the will of God, we again speak the same language.

     Before the Ascension of Jesus, his Disciples ask him if this is now the time for the re-establishment of the sovereignty of Israel.  As he most often does, Jesus responds with a confounding and expansive answer.  When and how the promises are to be fulfilled is known only to God, he says, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, a power that will enable you to bear witness to me “away to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1: 6-8)  The gift of Spirit and the sign of the Spirit’s presence and activity is a sense of personal potency and an expansiveness and inclusivity that is not bounded by the limits of our societal, cultural, ethnic, and religious understandings.  When human fear and ambition are the sources of our actions, the result is inevitably division, distance, and conflict.  When we act out of the inspiration and impulse of the Spirit, born of a humble presence to God’s will, the fruits of our actions include connection, communion, and peace.  This is the message of Pentecost.

     The reversal of Babel at the heart of the Pentecost story holds a special significance in these days in which our personal and societal relationships are so marked by fear, exclusion, and conflict.  In times of great personal and societal change and upheaval, the bonds that connect us to each other undergo terrible strains. In a recently published book entitled Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt, the historian and Director of the Remarque Institute at NYU, describes our society in the following way:

Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.  For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest:  indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.  We know what things cost but have no idea of what they are worth.  We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good?  Is it fair?  Is it just?  Will it help bring about a better society or a better world?  Those used to be the political questions, even if they invited no easy answers.  We must learn once again to pose them.  (p. 2)

We have become, in fact, so self-centered that we no longer have a language by which we can ask ourselves as a people what public acts and decisions serve  and what hinder the common good.

    At the heart of Pentecost is the “miracle” whereby those who are estranged from each other, actually experience mutual understanding.  Yet, we presently find ourselves in a state where even those of us who speak the same language have no way of speaking about the common good.  Judt quotes John Stuart Mill:  “The idea is essentially repulsive of a society held together only by the relations and feeling arising out of pecuniary interest.”  (p. 55)  In almost all of the recent political debates in the United States, even those regarding the common welfare like health-care, global climate change, and regulation of lenders and other financial institutions, our shared discourse revolves almost solely around “pecuniary interest.”  When the language of values does enter the debate, it is almost solely that of personal morality and righteousness and the self-interest of individuals.

    Why have we become unable to speak, and thus work, together toward the common good?   How can this year’s celebration of the Feast of Pentecost help us to recover our potential to receive and transmit the Holy Spirit that is the gift to all of us?  Perhaps one of the most influential people of the American formation tradition is Adam Smith, sometimes called the Father of the modern free-market economy.   It is Smith himself who wrote:  “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.”  (Judt, p. 63)  The gift of the Holy Spirit is that which brings to life the image of God in each of us.  It is that which gives us the love and the courage to bring into the world, in our words and actions, the life of God in which we uniquely participate.  “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.”  (John 14: 26)  It is by means of the gift of the Holy Spirit that we will remember all that Jesus has told us, what our self-preoccupation and sense of personal entitlement has led us to forget.  As with the citizens of Babylon and the disciples huddled in the upper room, when our fears and our self-concern are primary, the others are aliens and threatening to us.  But, in the life of the Spirit we are “one body . . .  all given to drink of the one Spirit.”

     The Spirit is indeed a gift to us, one that we can only receive.  Yet, the Feast of Pentecost calls us to dispose ourselves to receive this gift of God by stilling our fears and anxieties and by taking a Sabbath from our own ambitions.  In Psalm 20: 7 we pray:  “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”  Over and over again, fearful and proud peoples have attempted to rebuild the Tower of Babel, to put their trust in their own capacities.  And the cost of such hubris is always the same: the breakdown of community, the growth of mistrust and suspicion, and the loss of the transcendent power of the Spirit that emerges from the life of the One Body.  Pentecost invites us to come home to our own humble and limited humanity and to discover that this is, in fact, what we share in common.  But it also reminds us that it is not just the limitation that we share but the One Spirit that is the Source of life and that finds its home and exercises its power not despite but because of that very limitation.

Copyright © 2007 [Resources in Spiritual Formation].

All rights reserved.

Last updated: 11/24/10.