May 31; Pentecost Sunday; Year A

pentecost 19 20The Holy Spirit is our exit strategy

Even though the first reading speaks of the Pentecost event as a breaking out and breaking forth from enclosed spaces, comfort zones, secure safe houses and psychological prisons, the gospel takes us back to the scene on the evening of that first Easter Sunday. It’s a very different picture. The motley crew of survivors are holed up in the Upper Room by their own choice and not because they have been subjected to some draconian lockdown enforced by the authorities.

The juxtaposition of the readings is meant to highlight the radical transformation that has taken place after 50 days. On that first Easter Sunday, we see a group of frightened individuals. Their master, teacher and friend has been brutally killed and they wonder who will be next. They are hiding from an unseen, unpredictable, indiscriminate, deadly threat. For their own good and that of others, they are not stepping outside. They have no idea how long they should isolate like this, and they have no ‘exit strategy’ for ending their self-isolation together.

But the scene of the first Pentecost is so radically different. You would never have imagined that these were the same men who cowered in the safety of that room for 50 days. What happened within the span of those 50 days? Day 1, the Risen Lord appears to them in the flesh and continues to appear to different individuals and groups for the next 40 days. Day 40, our Lord ascends to heaven in their sight, a confirmation that He will now be present to them in a more lasting and vibrant way. Then Day 50 comes. As Jews gather in Jerusalem for one of the great pilgrimage festivals to commemorate the gifting of the Law to Moses; the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus, is finally given to this community of believers and its effect is utterly staggering. The event sends out ripples to the ends of the earth and this is still felt until today. The gift and descent of the Holy Spirit is a power beyond human imagination. It bestows a strength that is far beyond the contingencies and consequences of any persecution, war, pestilence, or any other threat to the human family. The Pentecost event has no equal except for the Incarnation and the Resurrection. What lesson, then, could Pentecost have for our world in the throes of this COVID-19 pandemic?

Though there is some easing of the lockdown with a few people returning to work; our churches, our cinemas, our stadiums, our schools and colleges and to a large extent, our shopping centres are empty. Where has everyone gone? We are in our homes, fearful of an unseen enemy, wondering when it will end and hoping for some good news. We are worried about ourselves, our loved ones and our future. That is why the gospel story has a special resonance for us this year. Though the reasons differ, we find ourselves in a similar situation behind locked doors this entire season of Easter (which began in Lent). Fear of the disease and charity for one’s neighbour have compelled us, and all people of goodwill, to nobly isolate ourselves and dutifully observe self-quarantine.

Even though staying home, may keep this coronavirus out, nothing could prevent our Lord from breaking into our most secure spaces. On the first Easter Sunday, the locked doors of the Upper Room had no bearing on the Lord’s testimony. We are told that the Risen Christ went to His apostles, passing through locked doors and any presumed barriers, and joyfully announced to them the liberating declaration: “Peace be with you.” In similar fashion, on this Pentecost Sunday, as individual Christians and families are in their homes, united by livestreamed Masses, but away from the physical gatherings of their regular faith communities, the Lord Jesus passes through any distance, and declares to each and every one of His followers: “Peace be with you.” Our Risen Lord who was killed on Good Friday, buried in the tomb for three days, and rose again on Easter Sunday, shows us that the sufferings and sorrows of this world have no authority over Him or the workings of His grace. The Holy Spirit which He now shares with us will also make us invincible and undefeatable in the face of the greatest threats.

In our world today, COVID-19 appears to be an unassailable enemy that has unrestrained power to provoke fear, anxiety, confusion, and to cause pain and death. And like death itself, COVID-19 seems unstoppable. In this arena, however, our Lord gives us the Holy Spirit and shows us His power. He once again reminds us of the authority that comes from above. The Lord summons us to a life of hope and calls us to be instruments of peace, messengers of His gospel, and witnesses of the power of His Spirit in the world. Nothing, not even COVID-19 has changed that or can change that.

In the Upper Room, the Lord concludes His time with the apostles by telling them, “As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.” After giving them this command, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Today, this same commission is once again given to every Christian. The Lord affectionately breathes on each of us, as He sends the Holy Spirit upon us. And the Spirit comes as a help and strength to complete our mission of hope and peace. Our task is to break from the inertia, accept the work, and to do it as best we can. With such faith and the power of the Spirit, we can fling wide our doors and share our faith again with those whom we can see and touch. It is important to be able to touch and hold others, their bodily presence is just as important as their emotional and spiritual presence. During a time of pandemic, however, we have been taught to socially distant ourselves, to avoid all physical contact with others. Let us pray for the day that we will have the ability to touch others again and to be touched by them.

When will we get to this point? Do we have to wait for a cure or a vaccine? I can’t predict when this will happen but what I do know is that there is already an exit strategy, it is already happening now. If there is anything which can defeat this pandemic and whatever other crisis which life throws at us, it is this - the gift of the Holy Spirit to sustain us during life’s journey and the promise of the resurrection at our journey’s end. This is truly the Good News for all of us, at home or out and about, inside or out, now and always.