Pentecost Reflections

I had the privilege of reflecting on the readings for the Pentecost Vigil last evening, and wanted to share some of the thoughts I had with you. Happy Feast! Alleluia, alleluia!
(The readings for the Vigil were
Genesis 11:1-9
Ezechiel 13: 1-14
Romans 8:22-27
John 7:37-39
Full text on the U.S. Bishops' website)

The writer and non-traditional theologian Anne Lamott has said that she has two basic forms of prayer – “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I’d add at least one more variation on the first – one of the ways Christians say “help me, help me, help me” is by praying, asking, begging God to come and be present with us.
Come and save us.
Lord Jesus, come – Maranatha!
And, come, Holy Spirit, which is our prayer tonight at this Vigil of Pentecost. I’d like to focus on our prayer, “come, Holy Spirit” this evening.

Sometimes it can appear that we neglect the Holy Spirit in our prayer, but have you noticed how often we pray “come, Holy Spirit”? In our liturgy, the technical name for this is an “epiclesis” – there’s your SAT word for the evening. An “epiclesis” is a prayer of invocation, asking the Holy Spirit to come and sanctify us.
Whenever we bless holy water for baptism, we invoke the Holy Spirit.
When we celebrate the Eucharist together in a few minutes, we will pray, as we do at each Eucharist, “may the Holy Spirit sanctify these offerings. Let them become the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And at every Eucharist, we also invoke the Holy Spirit upon us and upon our church – my Episcopalian friends take that so seriously that the routinely bless themselves when they pray, “by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ” or “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.” There are always at least two invocations specifically of the Holy Spirit in each eucharist, upon the bread and the wine, the body of Christ, and upon the gathered church, the body of Christ.

So we pray “come, Holy Spirit” a lot – but do we have any idea what we’re asking for on this night of Pentecost vigil when we can focus on the church’s “epicletic” existence?
I think we do know what we’re asking for – and that that is why we avoid thinking about it very often…
Let’s look at our scriptures tonight. Let’s look at these dry bones – “How dry they were!” How dry they are.
One way of hearing these texts is with deep joy, to receive the “springs of living water” Jesus promises in our Gospel tonight, to receive the “sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Those of you a few years older than I probably could have rattled them off without having to look them up on wikipedia, like I did… wisdom, knowledge, judgment, courage, understanding, piety, and fear of the Lord. It can be a bit like the lion getting courage, the tin man getting a heart, and the scarecrow getting a brain – put yourself in whatever category you choose.
But while that joy at the Spirit’s gifts is crucial, I’m not sure rejoicing in the Spirit’s gifts is enough.

You see, here’s what I think.
Deep down, or if I’m honest with myself, some of the time, (most of the time?)
I kinda like being a dry bone.
I kinda like just lying there.
You see, dry bones don’t feel pain. They’re already dry – you need flesh for that.
And dry bones don’t have to get up in the morning – you need sinews and tendons for that.
And nobody expects anything of dry bones – how dry they are! – nobody expects dry bones to keep doing Christ’s ministry in the world, to “do Christ’s work and even greater things than he,” he tells us in John’s Gospel, to save and not simply to be saved – you need Spirit for that.
When we pray, “Come Holy Spirit”, do we really know what we’re asking?

There’s a communal dimension to this as well.
Deep down, if I’m honest with myself, some of the time, (most of the time?)
Do I really want to be united with those who are other than I?
You see, Pentecost is the opposite of Babel – the people that attempt to “make a name for themselves” are dispersed from Babel, while, at Pentecost, the people who glorify God’s name, ha-Shem – the Name – are re-united, speaking all tongues, gathering all people into one new family.

That sounds great – and at the Paulist Center, we do a pretty good job at praying, “Come, Holy Spirit, unite us all in Christ.”

But deep down, do I want the Holy Spirit to unite me with, say, our brother in Christ, Bernard Law?
As a gay man, do I want the Holy Spirit to unite me with my Christian sisters and brothers who think that my sexual orientation is a sin, a perversion? More frightening, do they really want to be united with me?
You can think of your own examples, not of the “easy other” who it’s socially acceptable to accept in your current location, but of the “hard other”, the one who speaks a totally different language than you do. I often want to be united to others with the clay and bricks of my own terms, that is, by proving them I’m right – not on God’s terms, which may or may not be the same. But it is on God’s terms that we who were no people are being made into God’s people.

There is good news in the church this night. It is a great and graced irony that Paul’s promise that “the Spirit will come to the aid of our weakness, because we do not know how to pray as we ought,” is fulfilled when we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It is in asking for the Spirit that we most need the Spirit’s help in being courageous, wise, understanding, prudent… and it is in our confidence that “in hope we are saved” that we believe that our prayer will be answered, and that God will bring our dry bones to life again.

Come Holy Spirit, upon us and upon these gifts, upon these dry bones that are the body of Christ, that are waiting, hopefully, fearfully to walk again. As so often happens in the liturgical calendar, Pentecost ends one season not by coming full stop, but by beginning another – ordinary time, the “Sundays after Pentecost,” in the old language, the time to drink deeply of the Spirit’s living waters. These are the weeks to continue tonight’s celebration, to continue to ask for the grace to pray as we ought, for water to flow within us, for spirit to raise up these bones. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

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