Today we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost. In a special way this feast calls to mind the power and working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It also calls to mind the birth of the Church. And so the readings today help us get a picture of what the working of the Holy Spirit looks like so that we can see the same in our own lives, because God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Perhaps we might consider the action of the Holy Spirit in the light of Jesus’s parable of the sower, in the actions of sowing the seed and preparing the soil. When we think about these two actions, we begin to notice a family resemblance throughout the scriptures.
Previously we have talked about the similarities between the creation story and the baptism of Jesus. The Holy Spirit hovering either over the chaotic waters in Genesis or the waters of sin in the baptism of repentance. In both, we can see the seed of God’s word fructifying the soil and bringing forth new life, the new creation. We see the same thing happening in our first reading.
As we know, the early church is hiding away. The religious authorities who killed Jesus are now persecuting them. They know Christ has risen but they are still living in fear. There is a turbulent air surrounding them. The Holy Spirit enters into this and frees them from their fear. Sets them free for the mission of proclaiming the good news. A mission they take to immediately.
So, the work of the Holy Spirit planting the seed of the word is pretty familiar. But perhaps it is also worth paying attention to the other side of the picture: the Holy Spirit preparing the soil for the seed.
In fact, one could say that the whole of the Old testament can be seen as a preparing of the soil. God reaches into humanity and creates God’s people, Israel. Through many people and through many events, Israel is prepared to become the soil to receive the seed of the word, until at last our Lady, Mary, accepts the Word in pure faith and becomes God’s mother.
I think we can see the same thing in our first reading today.
As soon as the Church receives the Holy Spirit, we hear they begin preaching immediately. But who hears them? Who is the soil? Our reading tells us that it is devout people from each part of the known world. How could that be? How could so many people from so many nations be in Jerusalem at that time? We might be tempted to write it off as hyperbole, but if we look a bit harder we can see what the Holy Spirit has been doing over many many years to prepare for this moment.
In around 600BC, the Assyrians conquer the Holy Land, and so begins the time of exile. What is well known is that many were deported to Babylon. What is less well known is that many left the Holy Land for other places around the Mediterranean and beyond. And with the destruction of the first temple, a new way of worshipping – what we now know as synagogues – begins to form. So, Jewish communities spring up and begin to spread, taking their scriptures with them
Then around 350 BC Alexander the Great comes along. He conquers most of the Mediterranean world, and introduces a reasonably common language – Greek – as well as Greek philosophical culture. The introduction of Greek as a common language leads to the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures – the famous Septuagint, the version mostly quoted in the New Testament. This Greek version makes the Hebrew Bible available to more people.
Also, Greek philosophical culture begins to affect religious understanding. State religions begin to get called into question. This process is accelerated by the beginning of the Roman Empire. The Roman conquest brings in the Pax Romana, which allows for increased movement and commerce. However, as we know the Roman peace is maintained by brutal violence, like crucifixion. Thus, the Greek conquest followed by the wars of succession and then followed by Roman conquest cause people to question their gods and their faith. People begin looking around for new ways of living, new faiths that can give them hope that life is worth living. The philosophical development sharpens all these questions.
Around the first century BC and first century AD, there is the growth of mystery religions. Scholars discuss various cults coming out of the Middle East, but the major influence around the Mediterranean seems to be the Jewish scriptures. People become intrigued by them and the Jewish culture, and find there a faith that speaks to their hearts, that raises the fundamental questions of humanity. More and more people seek to learn more about this faith, even converting. We hear about such a people a lot in the New Testament.
So when Pentecost happens, when the early church receives the Holy Spirit and is sent out to sow the seeds of the Gospel, it finds the rich soil prepared by the Holy Spirit over many years and in many invisible ways. Just as in John’s Gospel when the arrival of the Greeks announces that Jesus’s hour has come, so too does the Early Church find a soil ready for it: people who are searching, a society that is questioning, thirsty and hungry for truth and hope.
We should remember this. All of this would have been invisible at the time. All that occurs in the Acts of the Apostles and all that follows from there: the table has been set up by the Holy Spirit.
We should look on our situation this way. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit is working but we can be absolutely sure that it is. Gerard Manley Hopkins in his wonderful poem God’s Grandeur speaks of the Holy Spirit as the eternal giving birth to the morning of the new creation.
Our job then is allow the Holy Spirit to use us. Both to sow the seed but also and perhaps more invisibly to help create the soil in which devout people can emerge, people who are ready and able to hear the Good news we are called to proclaim.
Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to come down then on our parishes. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear how God is building the kingdom of God in our midst. Most of all, let’s pray that we might have the faith to know this whatever we might sense.