Reference: 1 Corinthians 12:4-13
The intense excitement of that first Pentecost (see Acts 2:1-11) seems to have faded a bit over the years. Pentecost today ranks as a clear third place in terms of both excitement and importance after Christmas and Easter. Most Western Christians tend to be “Jesus people,” failing to grasp the power and imminence of the Holy Spirit among us. Pentecost often becomes little more than a little birthday party as the Church becomes one year older.
To understand why Pentecost is a bigger deal than just a birthday anniversary, allow me to introduce some Greek to show what is happening. The Greek word the Christians used for “church” was (and still is) εκκλησια, ecclesia. It comes from εκκλητευω, which means to call or to summon. English gets words like “ecclesial” from this. It does not mean “an institution or religious organization,” nor “a sacred building.” It is instead the assembling of those who are called or summoned, by ….none other than the Holy Spirit. When, as Paul notes (see the reference text above), “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one Body” we were called by the Spirit to be incorporated. Paul stresses two things from this.
First, the Body is not divided by the usual human differences of ethnicity or economic status, or anything else. It is not a matter of mere tolerance of others or “recognizing diversity” or “caring for the less fortunate.” The call is to an absolute unity where the perceived human distinctions are irrelevant as we function in the complete synthesis implied in being part of a single body. As such, there is no hierarchy of importance. All parts of your body are included in who you are, and if one part, even a small one like a tooth or toe, is in distress, the entire body suffers with the pain. All the baptized have been called, all are loved absolutely (and therefore equally) by God. The role of the Holy Spirit is perhaps analogous to the nervous system, keeping all parts connected to, and obedience to, the Head, as well as aware of each other and our needs.
Second, each of us receives a call (“vocation” is the Latin for it) from the Holy Spirit in our baptism. Again, Paul uses the analogy of the body to note that each part has a distinct function to perform. A few are called to what are now designated ordained roles, the clergy. The great majority are called to do other functions. All are called, without exception.
It is one of the disastrous distortions of the modern church that these two points are stifled. It is replaced by those who have succumbed to the human divisions prevalent in the world around us, of race, class, gender, language, nationality, the whole misery of humanity lost, and the violence and suffering that results. As well, the universality, and essential equality, of all vocations has been replaced by a clergy class seeing itself as the sole recipients of vocation and more worthy of honor, privilege and ecclesiastical power than mere laity. Even the word “laity,” which comes from the Greek “λαοs,” meaning “people,” has been distorted from describing the people of God to meaning those who are not professional or knowledgeable. It is not hard to see why the excitement of that first Pentecost has chilled.
Yet God is faithful, and quite used to the distortions caused by human sin. The excitement of Pentecost in the 21st Century is that God has not deserted us, but the Holy Spirit is still present among us, to help connect us as always to the Head. Paul once again makes the relevant point. “[W]e were all given the one Spirit to drink.” As the called out and summoned people of God are gathered in his Body and celebrate his Eucharist, the Greek word appears again. As the Eucharistic narrative is related, the words of Jesus repeated to state that he is indeed really present among us in these gifts of ordinary bread and wine, the priest or bishop presiding calls for the Holy Spirit. The term used is “epiclesis,” επικλησιs, in Latinized form, “invocation,” a calling up or calling upon. It is the arrival of the called Holy Spirit which actualizes the gifts. In this sense, just as every Sunday Eucharist is an Easter, so also is it a Pentecost as the Holy Spirit again comes to the summoned assembly (as indeed, it is a Christmas, as the incarnate Lord returns again in carnal reality).
The Eastern Church has always kept this Pentecostal dimension, emphasizing the epiclesis in the Eucharistic celebration. Unfortunately, in the West, the exclusive emphasis on the sacrificial nature of the Cross in offering the “sacrifice of the Mass” marginalized the epiclesis to near-oblivion. Only in the significant liturgical renewal of the last century has some balance been restored. However, the institutional and communal consequences of the liturgical distortion will take much longer to correct.
There is no magic here. We have been called in our baptism because God has chosen to love his creation, even us. That same love joins us together with him and with each other, summoned to be his people. And in the epiclesis, the Holy Spirit deigns to visit because his children, in their need, are calling, and his promises are always kept.
No wonder those first disciples were excited on Pentecost. They heard the summons. Can you not hear it on this Pentecost, and indeed at every Eucharist?