June 5, 2022, Pentecost
Madeline Contorno, OSB, Sacred Heart Monastery, Cullman, AL.
Many years ago when I was in San Francisco for a conference, I had the opportunity to visit the Cathedral of St. Mary’s of the Assumption. The exterior of the cathedral showed a strikingly modern design, and the interior contained seven prominent Marian panels depicting the Blessed Mother as the model of discipleship. The panels included events such as the Visitation, the Wedding Feast of Cana, the Crucifixion. But it was the panel depicting Mary at Pentecost that captivated me.
The artist displayed Mary, surrounded by the disciples, at the epicenter of the Pentecost event, and to my surprise, Mary looked pregnant! After some reflection, a window of understanding opened for me. Just as Mary was filled with the Holy Spirit and gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, at Pentecost she was again filled with the Holy Spirit, but this time giving birth to the Church itself, “those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Mary, our Blessed Mother, was pregnant at Pentecost with all humanity! I loved this reimagining of the “birthday event of the Church” and have never forgotten it.
Today’s scriptures of Pentecost provide us with striking images of the Spirit of God bursting into the lives of a diverse number of people and totally transforming them. The Holy Spirit is proclaimed as the leavening agent for new possibilities, new paradigms, new ways of connecting with others. The Spirit comes with both the ferocity of a wind storm and the gentleness of wind chimes.
Both the first reading from Acts 2:1-11 and the gospel reading from John 20:19-23 are accounts of Pentecost---the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus. The account from Acts comes to mind most readily, but this year we also hear the “Johannine Pentecost,” helping us understand the different dimensions of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.
In the first reading from Acts, Pentecost took place in Jerusalem on the Jewish feast of Shavuot, fifty days after Passover. Some 120 of Jesus’ followers were gathered together in the Upper Room. The Spirit came upon them with suddenness and intensity, almost forcibly, “there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house” (Acts 2:2). Then came the fiery tongues resting on each one (Acts 2:3), and the ability to speak and be understood in other languages (Acts 2:4).
Biblical scholars feel St. Luke is depicting Pentecost as the coming of the Day of the Lord foretold by the prophets. By pouring out his Spirit upon all those gathered, God is recasting human relationships into a new social paradigm where all peoples and nations, the outcast, the poor, and the lowly, are equally empowered and redeemed. St. Paul speaks of this reality in the second reading, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (I Cor. 12:13).
In the Gospel, the “Johannine Pentecost” merges Easter and Pentecost, and takes place in an earlier Upper Room where the disciples were gathered behind locked doors and paralyzed by their fears. Entering into the confusion, fear, and darkness, the Risen Christ breaks into their lives despite the chaos, and offers them both the gift of peace and a solemn commissioning. “As the God has sent me, so I send you” (John 20: 21). He then breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22), recalling Genesis 2:7 where God breathed his spirit (ruah) into the first humans and gave them life.
The Spirit “hovering over the waters” and birthing creation in Genesis is the same Spirit birthing a newly created world transformed by the Risen Christ. Receiving the Holy Spirit, the apostles were commissioned to be agents of God’s forgiveness and peace to the world. We too, filled with the Spirit’s powerful presence, become his instruments of love and joy by “healing wounds, renewing strength, melting the frozen, warming the chill, guiding the steps that go astray” (Sequence of Pentecost). We are to bring about the tikkum olam, the repairing of the world.
Kaleidoscopic images of Pentecost are certainly placed before us today: tongues of fire and deep breaths of life, loud confusion and profound peace, fear and boldness, intimate upper room settings and multilingual outdoor gatherings, Spirit in the church, Spirit for the world.
As we Benedictines of the Federation of St. Scholastica approach our Chapter meetings and bring our Centennial celebration to a wonderful culmination, I am reminded of a reflection by Father Ron Rolheiser written many years ago, entitled “Pentecost Happened at a Meeting.” He points out that meetings are today’s Upper Room experiences, the places where we wait for Pentecost to happen in our day, at our time, in our personal lives.
He asks “Just what are we waiting for at our meetings and gatherings? We are waiting there, with others, for God to do something in us and through us that we can’t do all by ourselves, namely, create community with each other and bring justice, love, peace and joy to our world.” Coming together, the Spirit can make room in our hearts for the unimaginable. Coming together, the Spirit can set our hearts aflame in wild and wonder-filled ways.
At this “graced crossroad” for our Federation, may we, like Mary at Pentecost, give birth to a transformative vision of monastic life. Come Holy Spirit, come!
Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB, is a Benedictine Sister of Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, AL. A Golden Jubilarian this year, she has ministered as religious educator, grief counselor, hospice chaplain, and diocesan Renew coordinator. For the last 20 years she has been a pastoral associate in parishes in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. She has served her community in several capacities as vocation director, community secretary, member of monastic council, chapter delegate.