by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
May 29, 2022 — In the next 10 days we shall celebrate two pillars of salvation history: the return of Jesus the Christ to His Father (Ascension Day) and the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to send us the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). They have enormous significance, not only in the birthing of the Church but for all who would become the People of God throughout the following centuries.
First a reflection on the Ascension followed by some words about Pentecost.
Despite the fact that Jesus had shown himself in various ways as risen from the dead during 40 days after his crucifixion, his followers continued to be afraid. All the Gospels relate the excitement these first followers of Jesus experienced at seeing him again. Yet His stated desire that they be at peace seems to have had little effect on their fear of reprisals at the hands of the political, religious and social establishment.
The Acts of the Apostles underlines this perception in relating the details of Jesus’ leave-taking: “They were looking intently at the sky as he was going, and suddenly two messengers dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said: ‘You Galileans, why are you standing there looking at the sky?’” (Acts 1:10-11)
Is it too much to imagine that these 11 unsophisticated men were totally confounded at that moment? The One whom they had believed in, who had shown Himself to be the long-awaited Messiah and who, despite dying and being buried, had come back alive – now He was gone. They were now quite alone and rudderless. They could only follow Jesus’ final instructions not to depart from Jerusalem but to wait for “what God has promised.” (Acts 1:4)
Ten long days later an amazing thing takes place.
The Acts of the Apostles relates the cataclysmic moment when the promised Holy Spirit crashes down on the fear-filled little group of apostles and disciples. They are cowering together “all in one place” doubtlessly afraid for their lives, and suddenly the presence of the Spirit in tongues of fire drives them into the streets of Jerusalem to begin the work Jesus had entrusted to them: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The contrast between the apostles’ attitudes before Pentecost and after caused one gifted homilist to ask: “What happened to those guys?”
The answer is clear: The power of the Holy Spirit came upon them.
That same Spirit continues to be active throughout salvation history. We have evidence of this divine force, for example, in the Benedictine movement of the sixth century, the Franciscan and Dominican mendicants of the 13th, in the rise of active communities of religious women in the late Middle Ages. We see it in great people like St. Augustine, St. Clare, St. Ignatius, in Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero. The list of movements and individuals driven by the Holy Spirit is endless.
Furthermore, a “new grace of the Holy Spirit” has inspired the People of God in our time as well. Catholic social teaching – understanding, living and preaching the social dimensions of the Gospel – is entirely new. No other generation since the time of the Lord has received anything like this gift of the Spirit. For as humanity came to understand itself as a global family and planet Earth as our Common Home, the Gospel implications for social, institutional and systemic realities had to be revealed to us by the powerful Spirit of God. We needed her help to understand the Gospel in this wider context – to read the Gospel in an expanded way.
The meaning of Jesus’ leave taking from the earth and the coming of the Paraclete have total relevance for the People of God at this time in salvation history.
“God beyond our dreams, you have placed your powerful Spirit in the hearts of humankind.”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.
Artwork, “When the day of Pentecost came,” by Mark A. Hewitt.