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Homily notes: Pentecost Sunday (Year A)

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ |  29 May 2017

Lectionary readings

First reading: Acts 2:1-11

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 104

Second reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13

Gospel: John 20:19-23

Link to readings.


The scriptural readings for today’s great feast are basically the ones we would expect. Each brings out a key feature of the early Church’s sense of being a community created, enlivened and equipped by the Spirit of God. It is Luke, of course, who in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, has most memorably depicted the imparting of the Spirit upon the Church and located it on the Jewish feast of Pentecost—a pilgrimage feast celebrated fifty days (seven weeks) after Passover when Israel gathered to give thanks to God for the gift of the land and its produce. 

This account in today’s First Reading, Acts 2:1-11, lists at the end people from many regions who hear the testimony of the apostles each in their own language. The nationalities refer to pilgrims from the Jewish Diaspora but Luke almost certainly means us to see here a foreshadowing of the universal mission of the Church. The renewed ‘Israel’ is now being empowered and equipped for its mission to be a ‘light for the revelation of the nations’ (Luke 2:32), something which will work towards overcoming the dispersal and disunity of humankind symbolised by the episode of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). The Church will speak in many languages but communicate through each the same essential message concerning the outreach of God’s compassionate love (‘the marvels of God’).

Some details in the account are rather elusive. They include a play upon several senses of the word ‘tongue’. As in English, the Greek word (glossa) refers both to the physical organ of speech and the various languages that it produces. Along with reference to languages, the text also makes an image out of the primary physical meaning in the phrase of ‘tongues of flame’. In the biblical (OT) tradition the sound of a mighty wind and manifestations of fire signal the presence and power of God—notably when Israel stood before God at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exod 19:16-24). What is described here seems to be a central fiery mass from which distinct ‘tongues’ separate and come to rest on individuals. The overall sense would be that the empowering Spirit, which rested solely upon Jesus during his own life, has now, in accordance with his promise (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8a), been distributed to those who are to carry on his mission—in first instance to Israel, then to Judea and Samaria, and ultimately ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8b).

The Second Reading, 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13, is taken from Paul’s instruction on the gifts (charismata) of the Spirit in the community of believers. He firmly believes that each individual member of the church has been given at baptism a distinct gift of the Spirit. Where some of the Corinthians appear to have rated the more dramatic and ecstatic gifts (especially, the gift of tongues) above all the others, Paul insists on the variety of gifts—including such matters as a gift for leadership and administration and of giving assistance to the poor (1 Cor 12:28-29). All have their origin in the Spirit but not all have the same purpose. Elsewhere in this section of the letter Paul makes clear his preference for gifts that build up the community rather than simply the individual (1 Cor 14:1-19). The image of the church (here the local church) as the ‘body of Christ’ holds together this sense of a variety of gifts within a fundamental and dynamic unity created by the Spirit.

In line with what seems to have been the more mainstream early tradition, the Gospel (John 20:19-23) associates the imparting of the Spirit more closely with the resurrection and exaltation of the Lord. So it is on the evening of ‘the first day of the week’ (i.e., Easter Sunday) that Jesus appears to the disciples, makes clear his identity, and imparts to them the ‘Peace’ that overcomes their fear. Then he imparts the Spirit to empower them to take up the mission of reconciliation that he himself has received from the Father. He has died as the ‘Lamb who takes away the sins of the world’ (1:29, 36; 19:36); his very moment of expiry upon the cross suggested a ‘handing over of the Spirit (19:30). Now, as risen Lord, he breathes the Spirit upon the disciples, communicating through them to the church the capacity to reconcile in God’s name.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media


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