Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Harvest of Fruits

Pentecost 2018

Many of you are aware that Pentecost is an important feast in our liturgical calendar and for good reason. Pentecost signifies the dawning of the age of the church, a new era in which the Spirit’s gifts, previously limited to particular people and situations, are now distributed liberally to all the people of God, young and old, male and female, slave and free. In popular parlance, this feast has been described as the “Birthday of the Church.”

But did you know that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival? That’s right. And not just any Jewish festival, Pentecost was also a harvest festival, a first fruits harvest festival.  Now when I say that Pentecost originally was a Jewish festival, you would not find that in the Old Testament, at least no reference to the word “Pentecost.” This is because the word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek word for "fiftieth" (pentecoste). Pentecost is the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday. Although you won’t find the word “Pentecost” you would find references to the Feast of Weeks (because it fell at the end of the seventh seven-days-week after Passover, the Jewish equivalent of Easter). Pentecost and the Feast of Weeks are really the same thing. The Hebrew name for this festival is “Shavuot,” which means “Weeks.” So seven weeks after Passover, after seven sevens, that is, on the fiftieth day, they had this festival.

What was Shavuot or Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks about? Well, as I said, it was a harvest festival. When Israel would get into the Promised Land, and the Lord would bless them in that bountiful land, then thereafter every year when the first fruits of the wheat crop would come in–at this time of the year, in late spring–the Israelites were to have a festival and give thanks to the Lord. They were to remember and to rejoice. They were to remember how the Lord brought them out of their bondage in Egypt at the Passover, and brought them up into the Promised Land, where they could enjoy such bounty. Another thing that was remembered and celebrated by Jews at Shavuot was the Lord giving His Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19 it does say that Israel came to Mount Sinai around that time of the year, so the giving of the Torah became associated with the Feast of Weeks as well. And so it was a time of rejoicing, a time to remember and a time to rejoice in what the Lord had done, a time to rejoice over the gift of the Law and the Covenant.

So it’s Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover. The disciples of Jesus–indeed, the whole company of believers–were all together in Jerusalem. Jesus had ascended into heaven ten days earlier, and now they were waiting there, together, as He had instructed. They were not the only ones in Jerusalem, because, Pentecost was one of the three pilgrimage festivals (the other two being Passover and the Feast of Booths), so you have all these scattered Jews, from all over the world, coming into Jerusalem to worship at the temple. A fitting audience for what was going to happen next!

Then the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples and they were overwhelmed by what sounded like a gale force wind, releasing them into strange tongues, so ecstatically that the bystanders assumed they were drunk. They weren’t, it was all happening too early in the day, as Simon Peter noted, perhaps with a touch of humour. It certainly bewildered the crowd. The descent of the Holy Spirit, and thus the creation of the Church, occurred in this eruption of mutually unintelligible languages, in which nevertheless the mighty works of God were praised and proclaimed accessibly to all and sundry. Peter began preaching to them about Christ crucified, whom now God has raised from the dead and who has been made their Lord, the very same one that they had crucified. This message cut the hearers’ hearts to the quick, and heeding Peter’s exhortation, they repented and were baptised. The Acts of the Apostles speak of three thousand were added on that very day. In so many ways, Pentecost is truly a harvest festival, not of the crops of the people but rather the people themselves, and the three thousand were the first fruits of that harvest. Soon there would be thousands–no, millions–more. But the Pentecost explosion has not ended. Its ripples continue to be felt throughout the world through all generations. So it is for us too, at this Feast of Pentecost.

This harvest is the fruit of the seed sown by Christ. We recall Our Lord's words in John's Gospel anticipated in the conversion of the Samaritan woman at the well, the first missionary: “I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already ripe for harvest” (Jn 4:35). Our Lord gave the apostles to understand that only after His death would they reap the harvest of the seed He had sown: “’One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that which you did not labour; others have laboured, and you have entered into their gain” (Jn 4:37-38). From the day of Pentecost, through the work of the Holy Spirit, the apostles will become the reapers of the seed sown by Christ. And indeed, on the day of Pentecost, there was an abundant harvest!

The harvest is also the fruit of Christ's sacrifice. Jesus spoke of the sower's “toil,” and this consists especially in His passion and death on the cross. Christ is that “other one” who has laboured for this harvest. He is the one who has opened the way for the Spirit of truth, who, from the day of Pentecost, begins to work effectively by means of the apostolic kerygma. So, we cannot boast or take credit for what has happened, what is happening and what will be happening in the Church. It is all the fruit of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross and re-presented at every Mass. At every Mass, we do not only witness the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ made present again. It is Pentecost too that is made present again. And, that is the reason why it is accurate to say that the Eucharist makes the Church.

Pentecost was and continues to be an outpouring into real people, lives receptive to the Spirit, ready to emerge from locked rooms into the community to preach, heal and minister to others. We are these real people today who need this outpouring of the Holy Spirit so as to come out from the safety of living behind locked doors. Though it is safe and secure to live our Christian lives from behind locked doors; but just like fruits, when they are kept locked away and not eaten, they eventually rot and go bad. Our fruits demand sharing and witnessing. Without such testimony the “word” of our Lord is soon forgotten, and we settle for our own words and we become an echo chamber for our own ideas. Pentecost serves, like every birthday celebration, to remind us that our lives are meant to be shared. Everything is a gift meant to be used fully and joyfully to our benefit and that of those around us.

Pentecost day is marked with exuberance, confidence, abundance. In dark times, when our future is uncertain, when the forces of evil seem more prevalent than the good, when there is every reason to despair and give up, when our lives seem old and tired, Pentecost invades our lives once again and reminds us, that we are part of the harvest of fruits sown by Christ and made possible by His sacrifice. And that, changes everything!  The great news of Pentecost is that even when things which seemed impossible begin to happen, and a message that seemed difficult to comprehend or express is widely proclaimed. Pentecost reminds us that just when we thought there would be no closure to the story, with the Holy Spirit, we will find fulfilment and completion. Pentecost is not just a season or annual feast for us. It is not simply a fact or event that we commemorate. It is our beginning, our entry point, our ever-present moment. The Holy Spirit continues to work in us to transform and inspire us, so that God’s great work of salvation can be shown forth in us and brought to its completion. Inspired by the Holy Spirit’s action, we receive the courage to lift our hearts in hope, and the Spirit fills us, making us new.

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