Cambridge, MA, After the Harvard Graduation and just before Pentecost:
“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 entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” (Acts 1)
It is just a few days until Pentecost, and if we are in tune with the liturgical calendar, we are waiting once again for the gift of the Spirit poured forth on the Church. But what exactly are we remembering and expecting? To put it simply: we might be commemorating the gift of the Spirit to the Church in the very beginning, athe presence that has guided the Church through the centuries, who is with the Church always and everywhere. Key would be thanksgiving for an event of 2000 years ago. Or: we can once again be expecting a new birth of the Church, as in the beginning, the tumult and excitement of a new gift of the Spirit, some deep change in who we are as Church, because the Spirit has been given.
So which is it? Remembering the original gift that deepens the Church today but does not change anything, or the Spirit who compels us to start afresh? (Remembrance or a new happening: this is not different from the question that faces us regarding the Eucharist: a memorial of Christ and that first Christian Eucharistic meal, and/or the advent of Christ’s presence again, in this meal today.) Of course, there is no simple answer to this question, and we will surely agree that Pentecost is both an affirmation of the beginning, and a new beginning. But which is more needed today?
Context: I pose these questions not just with my usual professorial detachment, but just after Harvard’s graduation – a grand set of ceremonies on a splendid spring day. The Divinity School’s own events – from the interfaith service on Wednesday until the Tea which I hosted this afternoon at the Center for the Study of World Religion — were likewise impressive and festive and joyful. But perhaps by chance, or perhaps because I have, like many a reader, been wondering about the health of the Church right now, I was particularly aware this year how a number of our fine young, talented graduates are former Catholics: now Buddhists or Unitarians or Hindus or Anglicans, opting for other paths outside the Church, because they seek freedom and respect and justice and the spiritual and do not find these in union with Rome. Some of their parents too found other Christian and extra-Christian communities in which to pray and serve, because they could not endure the Church any more. In the various formal and social settings of these several days, it was very hard to do more than to wish them well: find God, live by the Spirit, as you are led. Graduation day is not the day for apologetics.
On another day, it would be easy, too easy, to write off such experiences as merely individual, or a sign of the baleful influence of Harvard Divinity School — or insignificant if balanced against the larger number of Catholics who at commencements around the country witness to and reaffirm their faith. But in light of the current controversies in the Church – about the nuns, about the girl scouts, about the presidential election, about abuse cases, about the bishops’ self-assurance about their own wisdom; and/or, if you wish, about abortion, birth control, gay marriage, the ordination of the married and of women — we can still wonder whether we are losing more members, more quickly than we should, because the Church shows itself short on Spirit, proceeding too much by the cold calculations of power and human design, made rigid by self-assurances — right, left — that have less to do with Spirit and more to do with human self-confidence and opinion. Of course, expecting the Spirit is the matter of the old dream: a new Pentecost, to push us beyond our current dilemmas and the polemics that predictably arise as we use our flimsy resources to fight one another, attempting to silence those who disagree with us. But for the dream to be ture, where and how would the Spirit have a chance?
Such are the questions, but we need to answer them, each in her or his own way, if we are to pray. It would be a shame were we to pray less intelligently and fervently the next few days, merely because we do not appreciate how the Spirit already works in the Church we have — or merely because we cannot imagine the Spirit speaking differently and actually changing, upsetting the Church. We know that we can sin by refusing to keep faith with and in the Church. And we know that we can also sin by idolizing what we are now. Think too of the example of Peter in the earliest Church, learning only by the Spirit to let go and allow something new to happen. It is always the case: those most happy with the way things are, have the most to lose in the surprise visit of the Spirit. (Think of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor: the last thing he wanted, thought the Church needed, was the presence of Jesus.)
So please think this through, if you wish to pray intelligently this Pentecost. One of the more potent Pentecost prayers is the Prayer after Communion at the Vigil: “May these gifts we have consumed benefit us, O Lord, that we may always be aflame with the same Spirit, whom you wondrously poured out on your Apostles.” What are we asking for? If our prayer is answered, and the Spirit ignites us, what specific difference do we hope it will make?