In Part I of my article about Pentecost, we saw how, after the Ascension, the disciples’ problem of how to remain in relationship with Jesus was not a new one. In her book, The Particulars of Rapture; Reflections on Exodus, (Doubleday, New York, 2001), author and midrashist Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes that, after God’s revelation at Sinai, the Hebrew people needed to know that God’s presence at Sinai was more than a mere historical event, that God would continue to dwell in their midst. How could God’s fiery Presence remain with them, central to their daily lives, and a continuing source of revelation, yet not consume them?
God’s solution was the Tabernacle, called Mishkan in Hebrew:
I will appoint-meeting there with the Children of Israel, and it will be hallowed by my Glory. . . . And I will dwell amidst the Children of Israel and I will be a God for them, that they may know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt to dwell, myself, in their midst. [Exodus 29:43, 45-46 (Schocken)]
[T]his possibility is realized in the people’s transformation at Sinai [by means of fire]. They are now worthy to carry a version of Sinai with them on their travels through the wilderness, a medium for God to continue revealing Himself. (316-17)
Zornberg quotes Gaston Bachelard’s description of fire as incorporating both love and hate, good and evil:
Fire is a privileged phenomenon which can explain anything . . . all that changes quickly is explained by fire. Fire is the ultra-living element. It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance. (325)
At the heart of the Mishkan are two cherubim, human-faced figures made of gold. Gold represents fire, motion, and infinite transformation. But the gold figures are not the sacred object; rather, they frame the sacred space: “the heart of the Mishkan is an emptiness, set in fiery gold, from which God will speak. . . . This uncanny absence constitutes it’s center.” The Tabernacle is a space in which messages are transmitted between God and humanity; between those who, like a new-born baby and her mother separated by birth, must reinvent ways of love. (338-343)
The disciples, so recently and traumatically bereft of their beloved Lord, endure his absence with a painful longing that is inescapable, that pierces them to the core: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
On Moses’ first encounter with God at the Burning Bush, the angel appears to Moses in the very heart of fire in the midst of the bush which burns without being consumed, foreshadowing the fire of Sinai which will burn on this same site to the heart of the heavens. Zornberg notes that this opening scene initiates a central theme in Exodus: the nature of fire as an image for the heart. From the heart of both fires comes the voice of God conveying messages to the people. From the heart of the Tabernacle, too, comes the voice of God. The heart of the matter, says Zornberg, is about language emerging from fire. (338-39)
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, sat on each one of them, and all were filled with the holy Spirit, and they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit was giving them the ability. [Acts 2:1-4 (Interlinear)]
Like the Burning Bush, like Moses and the Hebrew people assembled at Sinai, the disciples experience the fiery Presence of God but are not consumed; instead, they are transformed into a new people, worthy carriers of God’s message. The human construct of the Tabernacle is no longer needed because, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s words have been fulfilled:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
Devout Jews from every nation under heaven were living then in Jerusalem. Hearing the loud sound, they gathered together to listen to the language emerging from the fire of Pentecost: God’s word, spoken by Peter and the disciples, “pierced their hearts,” and the Holy Spirit dwelt within them. [Acts 2:5-6, 37-41 (Interlinear)]
We celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the end of the Easter season, with vivid pomp, fiery colors, and beautiful music. As we settle into Ordinary Time, we might have a sense of let-down, of absence. We might ask ourselves: now what? During the many weeks of Ordinary Time, how can we retain the vivid sense of Jesus’ presence that we had during the seasons of Lent and Easter?
From our Baptism, we carry within our hearts the Holy Spirit, the fiery Presence of God. If you doubt it, stop and listen to your heart. Do you feel restlessness or a sense of discontent? Is there, within you, a longing for something more? Out of that fire God’s language emerges, speaking to us in our own tongue, maintaining the connection that seemed lost with Jesus’ death. When God removed our stony hearts and gave us hearts of flesh, God chose unpredictability over stability. We could be motivated toward love or hate, good or evil. God asks–pleads with?–us to stay in relationship with Him; to, in Jesus’ words, remain. God invites, but the choice is ours.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. . . . No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, . . . then you shall live . . . . But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish. . . . I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30:11-19)
Beyond the beautiful candles we light at the liturgy, no divine fire appears at Pentecost to signal the presence of the Holy Spirit. Why do we celebrate Pentecost in our time? Is it only a commemoration, a remembrance of things past? Can the flame of the Holy Spirit that hovered over the disciples’ heads on Pentecost transform our lives today? These are the questions I will address in Part III, the last blog in this series about Pentecost.