After this article, readers should read “The Trinity” for the concept of Holy Spirit to be developed further, but for now, a brief resumé:
The Holy Spirit is aptly defined by scholar, Leander Keck, as “the is-ness of the was-ness of Jesus,” i.e. that which makes Jesus real and alive to us. Going back a bit further to the beginning of the Bible, we find that the first man was created from clay and became a living being when God “breathed” into him. In the Hebrew in which this was written, ‘breath’ is the same word as ‘spirit’, so it is said that God’s spirit or breath is that which animates us; it makes us alive.
The Pentecost event 50 days after the first Easter, as described in the Book of Acts, is the symbolic birth of the Church; when the Spirit filled the throngs of people from every nation, thus ‘animating’ the infant Church.
It all seems so exciting! It would be handy if all we had to do was push the right button on our iPhones and download the Holy Spirit, but we’re still struggling to discover the reality of which Pentecost speaks.
Pentecost, as a celebration, is as important in the church as is Easter or Christmas, but it is not celebrated to the same extent. (Perhaps all we need is for someone to find a way to make money out of it.)
Why is Pentecost important? Because it reverses the curse of Babel. I shouldn’t use the word “curse,” as it suggests that there was a time when human beings weren’t cursed. The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) is not history; rather, it was originally an etiology, i.e. a story that endeavoured to explain why something is the way it is. In this case, the story was an attempt to explain why there are many languages. Adopted by the writers of Genesis, it functions as one more story about human disrelationship; specifically, the fact that we humans cannot work together, because we do not understand one another.
Yet Genesis 11:6 holds out a marvellous promise: when human beings understand one another, “there is nothing that they will not be able to do.” In an age in which there is no shortage of insurmountable problems: war, poverty, hunger, terrorism, pending environmental catastrophe, the hope that can be drawn from Genesis 11:6 is certainly comforting. All we have to do is manage to understand one another. Easy, right? I wish.
The word ‘understand’ speaks of that which comes when one can put oneself ‘under’ – ‘stand under’ – another, i.e., put oneself in the shoes of another person. Indeed, one really cannot understand another until one occupies the same space, with the same viewpoint, the same history.
On the day of Pentecost, so the story in Acts 2:1-21 tells us, people from all over the known world, and apparently across time (eg. the Medes mentioned in the story did not exist for another 200 years), came together and all understood what was being said, each in his own tongue. This is only a story, of course; perhaps nothing more than a preview of what would be possible when people are filled with the Holy Spirit.
How does this happen? Francois Fenelon declared, “The wind of God is always blowing, but you must hoist your sail.” In other words, the onus rests on you and me to be open to the guidance of something outside our own ego, and beyond any human ego; to recognise that we are not individuals, but are inextricably tied to everything else in creation, bound together in a web of life. To participate in this universal web of life is to find true understanding of who we are and how we relate to everyone else. Then perhaps the words of Genesis 11:6 will come to pass, and there will be nothing that we will not be able to do.