This past week, Americans witnessed the callous death of an African-American man at the hands of police authority. After the shocking video – heightened by the man clearly saying “I can’t breathe, Officer!” – people of goodwill were (and are) outraged by the blatant disregard for human life and the utter lack of any semblance of a reasoned and humane response by the police officers involved.
Questions abound over intent, and the ugly face of racism is being discerned and denounced. The pressing question is being asserted, and once again demands an answer, “How could anyone treat another human being this way?”
The question has led to protests, some of which have devolved into riots. Conflict between police and citizens has intensified. Justice appears not only blind, but powerless. People of goodwill are hurt. The Black community is fearful of its safety and angered over another attack against one of its own. Race relations are strained. Neighbors are approaching one another with suspicion. Life has become very confusing very quickly.
As these events unfold, Christian believers are celebrating Pentecost. While perhaps off the radar for many people involved in the protests and riots, the feast day offers some uplifting wisdom to our tragic state of affairs.
Traditionally called “the birthday of the Church,” Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary as tongues of fire. The Spirit came amidst a strong wind, which blows wherever it wills. It cannot be contained nor controlled. The Spirit appeared as tongues so that the apostles would speak and proclaim the message that was given to them. And the tongues came as fire, not a fire that destroys, but a fire that purifies souls and cultures and ignites good action in the hearts of all people.
Before the coming of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were afraid and secluded themselves in the Upper Room. Separated from the rest of the world, divided from the rest of humanity, and fearful of the consequences of sharing the Lord’s message, the apostles hid themselves away. Nothing was being done. Everything was on pause.
As promised by the Lord Jesus before he ascended into paradise, however, the Holy Spirit was sent. He broke through shut doors and closed hearts. He humbled the enemies of the Church and empowered the apostles to be bold preachers of the Gospel message.
As we remember these events in Jerusalem, along with their symbols and summons, our hearts go back to Minneapolis and to a man brutally restrained on the ground, asking to breathe, and having his life taken from him.
Can our faith help us in this situation? Can it make any lasting contribution to this tragic state of affairs?
Can the event of Pentecost heal and guide us in responding to such an egregious act against human dignity? How can the tongues of fire assist us in dealing with such a blatant abuse of power? How can the winds of Pentecost direct our national reaction to such horror?
When the wind blew, and the tongues of fire fell, the apostles were envigored. They left their place of fear and announced a message of salvation, peace, and reconciliation. They unleashed the power of a spiritual renewal, and they relied upon – and spoke to – what all human beings desire in their souls, namely, love and acceptance, redemption and mutual understanding.
In their simple proclamation, the apostles announced the most daring and provocative message ever given to humanity. No longer solely tribes, genders, racial groups, economic classes, or language entities, humanity was called to be one family.
The apostles declared – and we are called to echo today – that all human beings are united as one family under one God. They proclaimed – and showed humanity – our common inheritance as the children of God and a mutual way of love for us all to follow.
In the force of such a message, neighbors are no longer seen as “others” or as threats, but as true brothers and beloved sisters.
No longer divided by pride, as recounted in the story of the Tower of Babel, where humanity was seared and scattered by languages and cultures, the message of Pentecost has the compelling power to unite the peoples and nations of the world in love. This was seen in Jerusalem.
As the apostles preached, the crowds – comprising of peoples from all over the known world –understood the apostolic message in their own language and they accepted it as one renewed and unified people.
As this same message is announced today, may the wind of the Spirit blow and tongues of fire fall. May it bring peace. And may the people of Minneapolis, and the people of cities throughout the United States, hear what is announced, imitate the people of ancient Jerusalem, and accept it – not as separate groups in tension with each other – but as one unified family, called to love, and brought together by the goodness of God.
Follow Father Jeffrey Kirby on Twitter: @fatherkirby