A conversion moment took place in Lourdes a number of years ago. I was there with a group of young people from St Bernadette’s Parish in Scunthorpe and our pilgrimage coincided with a Diocesan pilgrimage from my home county Kerry. My mother Julie was one of the pilgrims. The first evening I went down to her hotel to have a chat. As I came into the front room of the hotel I saw Julie and another woman talking thirteen to the dozen, fully animated and obviously fully at home with one another. When I came up to them I was taken aback because my mother was speaking English and the other woman speaking Spanish. When we were alone I said to Julie “you don’t speak Spanish”. She looked at me as if was totally stupid and said. “What’s that got to do with it? We were talking about our families and showing pictures of our children to one another. What’s language got to do with it.” It was a Pentecost moment. Language was not a barrier, a spirit of openness and care for one another overcame apparent difference. What was held in common was greater than what might separate. It just took people of deep humanity and spirit to take the risk of reaching out to the other.
Pentecost is a many layered feast. It has deep roots which lie in the Jewish celebration of the feast of Weeks (Shavuoth), remembering the giving of the Torah (the Law) to Moses at Mount Sinai. It is also a feast of celebrating the gift of the first fruits of harvest, a new beginning with the sense of jumping for joy and entering into the dance of plenty along with the birth of the people of the Law of Moses. It is little wonder that the early Church community celebrated this day, the new first day of the Lord– 50 days (7 weeks + 1) after Easter as the birth of the new community of Jesus of Nazareth. A celebration full of joy (drunk with joy no less) and new possibilities uniting the rich diversity of many peoples ‘from every nation under heaven’ in one great moment of unity celebrating the richness of different languages and cultures in an experience of common humanity and grace.
Behind the story of the outpouring of the Spirit lies the story of the Tower of Babel with its emphasis on humankind’s tendency towards hubris:- The desire to be our own god, along with the tendency towards uniformity and conformity. In the story all speak the same language and attempt to reach beyond ourselves, to the very heavens. At Pentecost Hubris and the desire for power is turned totally upside down. Diversity of language and culture become a sign of the deeper unity of humanity under God. A God who is lavish in his creation who in the words of the poet Brendan Kennelly “goes about his work, Determined to hold on to nothing. Embarrasses at the prospect of possession, He distributes leaves to the wind, And lets them pitch and leap like boys, Capering out of their skin. Pictures are thrown behind hedges, Poems skitter backwards over cliffs, There is is a loaf of bread on Derek’s threshold, And we will never know who put it there.”
Pentecost is a great feast of the outpouring of the Spirit of God. It warns against the tendency to uniformity and conformity while celebrating the rich diversity of God’s creation. It is an invitation for us to share in that lavish generosity, to let go for the good of others, to be big of heart and to give freely of our gifts and talents. A launch pad for a life of discipleship:- walking confidently and courageously with the One who is with us to the end of time.