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Hardest to Bear, Easiest to Forget
Pentecost 2006

For Sunday June 4, 2006

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
           Acts 2:1–21 or Ezekiel 37:1–14
           Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
           Romans 8:22–27 or Acts 2:1–21
           John 15:26–27; 16:4b–15

Pentecost, Sawai Chinnawong (Thailand).
Pentecost, Sawai Chinnawong (Thailand).

           Last summer when my wife and son visited France they left the beaten tourist track to explore the Paris catacombs. In 1786 Monsieur Thiroux de Crosne, Lt. General of the Police, and Monsieur Guillaumot, Inspector General of the Quarries, converted some Roman limestone quarries into a subterranean cemetery. In nearly 200 miles of dark and dank tunnels Parisians have meticulously stacked the skeletal remains of five million people from floor to ceiling in various symmetrical patterns. Graffiti line the narrow passages and low ceilings commenting on the certainty of death and the uncertainty of life: "Crazy that you are, why do you promise yourself to live a long time, you who cannot count on a single day?"

           In an ancient Semitic version of the Paris catacombs, the prophet Ezekiel pictures the nation of Israel as a wasteland of bones scattered across a desert valley (Ezekiel 37). Lifeless, windswept, and eery, "the bones that were very dry" were a metaphor of Israel's exile to pagan Babylon: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off'" (37:11).

           The psalmist and the apostle Paul also describe the shadows of death, futility and hopelessness that can darken our lives. After marveling at the many splendors of creation—the wind and the rain, mountains and valleys, wild donkeys and nesting birds, rock badgers and sea monsters, bread and wine that gladden human hearts—the psalmist switches gears. He acknowledges the radical dependence and ultimate contingency of all life:

These all look to you
   to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
   they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
   they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
    they are terrified;
 when you take away their breath,
   they die and return to the dust. (Psalm 104:27–29 NIV)

Coptic icon.
Coptic icon.

Paul likewise paints a sober picture of the entire cosmos. For now, he says, all creation waits, subject to frustration and in bondage to decay. "The whole creation," he writes, "groans as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." Turning from the cosmic to the personal, Paul says that our lives are characterized by weakness, ignorance and pain. Like the entire cosmos, we too "groan inwardly" (Romans 8:22–27).

           Thank God for Pentecost when we celebrate the descent of His Spirit into our lives. The word "Pentecost" comes from the Greek pentekostos, meaning "fiftieth," from which one of the most important feasts in the Jewish calendar derives its name. Fifty days after Passover the Jews celebrated the "Feast of Harvest" (Exodus 23:16) or "Feast of Weeks" (Leviticus 23:15–21). Many centuries later, after their exile to Babylon Pentecost became one of the great pilgrimage feasts of Judaism, a time when Diaspora Jews returned to Jerusalem for worship. Since about the second century Christians have celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, and with His descent the birth of the church (Acts 2:1–21). After Christmas and Easter, Pentecost marks the most important celebration of the Christian calendar.

           Just what does the descent of the Spirit into our lives mean? What ought we to expect? As with many plots in the Christian story, we need to steer a course between saying too much or too little.

           Contrary to the messages of many popular books and television preachers, fullness of life in the power of the Spirit does not mean that God will solve all your problems by dramatic intervention. Human experience teaches us this hard lesson, but for some Christians the dream dies hard and the temptation remains too powerful not to expect wholesale deliverance here and now. Paul, though, described his own life as "harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within" (2 Corinthians 7:5). Most of us experience our own private versions of his prognosis, whether a lot or a little—dysfunctions inherited from my family of origin, friends who feel stuck in exhausted marriages, teenagers hospitalized with eating disorders, a parent suicide in our school district, or surgery that reminds me of my frailty and mortality. The early desert mothers and fathers counseled believers to "expect trials until your last breath." St. Makarios of Egypt (5th century) was more blunt: "I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety. . .Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety."

Mexicon icon.
Mexicon icon.

           But neither should we succumb to despair. “We do not lose heart," writes Paul. "Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). In our outlooks, attitudes and expectations, the Spirit of God gives us the graces of equanimity, hope, empathy, perseverance, and peace. Paul says that, paradoxically, his experience of God's mighty power co-exists with the extremities of human weakness, suffering, hardship and mental anguish. His struggles are acute, but his transformation is real: "We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed" (2 Corinthians 4:7–9).

           Elsewhere Paul describes the gift of the Spirit as a "deposit" that guarantees a future inheritance, or the "first fruits" of a full harvest. A deposit is not a full payment, but it is a guarantee. First fruits are limited, but they foretell what is to come. The key, then, is to live with a confident expectation of our ultimate future, no matter how bleak our penultimate circumstances. We seek to experience what one theologian called the “is-ness of the shall be.” We pray to know a sure but limited sense of the Already of God’s coming kingdom, even though our experience of it awaits a future Not Yet.

           Our experiences of a real but limited transformation of the inner person today orient us to a confident expectation of a comprehensive renewal in the future. Christians, writes Frederick Buechner, ought to be "people who have been delivered just enough to know that there’s more where that came from, and whose experience of that little deliverance that has already happened inside themselves and whose faith in the deliverance still to happen is what sees them through the night." In the end, Paul insists that our present sufferings cannot compare to our future glory. He acknowledges our bondage to decay but awaits a glorious freedom. He experiences abandonment but looks forward to adoption. Despite everything that threatens our identities, he tells us to have faith in the redemption of our bodies. Like pain in childbirth, Paul says that our sufferings might be hardest to bear, but eventually they will be easiest to forget.

For further reflection:

* Is it a cop-out to rationalize current suffering by appealing to a future redemption?
* Consider Paul's words, "Who hopes for what he already has?" (Romans 8:24)
* How have Christians "oversold" life in the Spirit? Said or promised too much? Or expected too little?
* What does Pentecost mean to you?

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