One summer day in Renaissance Rome, Michelangelo was pushing a huge rock down the street to his workshop. A curious onlooker bemused by the sight of this old man labouring behind such an enormous stone asked, “Why are you breaking your back on a worthless piece of rock?” Michelangelo stopped, and while wiping his brow said, “Because there is an angel in that rock that wants to come out.”
At the time of Jesus Pentecost was a Jewish harvest festival fifty days after the first day of Unleavened Bread. It also celebrated the Covenant made on Mt Sinai, where God gave his people the gift of the Law in a great and noisy revelation of wind and fire. The wind and fire in the Acts of the Apostles, which enveloped the community of Christ’s disciples, gathered in the Upper Room, is meant to evoke that scene on Mt Sinai and give it new fullness. The Law written on stone tablets is now written on human hearts, the angel emerges from the stone, if you like, and the Mystery of Easter is complete.
On the day of Pentecost, devout people from every nation under heaven were gathered together in Jerusalem. The People of God who once gathered at the base of Mt Sinai are now enlarged to the point of recognising no boundaries. This new People of God, the Church, are a people that derives from all peoples and on this day of Pentecost the characteristic gift of the Holy Spirit is finally revealed: understanding, “each one heard these men speaking their own language”. The curse of the Tower of Babel, division and confusion, is overcome by understanding.
We must learn in our own lives how to pass from Babel to Pentecost, where no barrier prevents the entry of the Risen Lord and the power and action of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel reinforces this point. The Risen Lord passes through closed doors, enters the place where the disciples are gathered, and greets them twice with the words: “Peace be with you”. Why do we continue to close our doors? Does it make us feel secure? We don’t like our lives being disturbed, even by God! We don’t like the pain and effort involved in releasing that angel from the rock.
The Gospel account gives us an unmistakable reference to the story of creation in the Book of Genesis. The Lord God formed Adam out of the dust of the earth and blew into his nostrils the breath of life. On this day of Pentecost Jesus breaths afresh upon us, giving us the breath of God in a new and greater way. The life of God now lives in us.
On Mt Sinai, there was fire, thunder and a great wind. When Christ breaths forth the Holy Spirit in today’s Gospel it is more akin to the experience of the prophet Elijah on Mt Horeb, than the pyrotechnics of Mt Sinai. On Horeb God was not in the great wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the gentle breeze. In the Gospel Jesus gently breaths out the Spirit upon the Apostles.
This is how God has chosen to complete the great Mystery of Easter. The Holy Spirit comes in mighty wind, thunder and tongues of flame. The Spirit completes the Law once given on Sinai and breaks down doors and barriers with understanding and peace. But the Holy Spirit also comes as the gentle breath, the breath of life, a life that now lives in you and me. The Spirit has many manifestations, one for every occasion. The essence of Pentecost is to celebrate and make known that the Holy Spirit is Christ alive among the believing community, bringing, as it were, angels out of stones, helping each one of us move from Babel to Pentecost, division to understanding, in our own lives.
Abbot Brendan OSB