Sunday, June 4, 2017

Day of Pentecost Year A- June 4, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Day of Pentecost- Year A - Sunday,  June  4, 2017

Br. Roy Parker

The readings have been selected partly for the sake of illustrating a less institutional possibility for the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In the reading from Numbers the story goes that the majority of chosen elders stuck to the plan of following Moses out of the encampment to the Tent of Meeting to take their places round about the Tent. In due course the Spirit of God came to rest upon them, causing them, in chorus, to prophecy ecstatically once and then no more. On the other hand two of those chosen happened to stay behind in the encampment for whatever reason. 

A liturgy I once attended depicted them as illustrating the accusation leveled at those in the Upper Room in the Book of Acts - as being drunk on new wine - and the point made by Numbers is that these two who stayed in the camp were gifted with sustained prophecy, whereas those who obeyed the rules prophesied but once.

This alarmed Joshua, Moses' assistant, who proposed putting an end to such behavior. But to the apparent challenge to his authority Moses makes the more vigorous response:  "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" Apparently the gift of the Spirit is not limited to those who strictly follow the rules; in fact, it appears to be enhanced by a little transgression, a reminder that sometimes toeing the line gets you exactly nowhere. Bp. James Pike used to refer to the apostolic succession as "the sacred plumbing," and this incident in Numbers would be a sort of renegade piping.

Then there's the reading from John which emphasizes the general availability of the Spirit because Jesus calls out for every thirsty one to come to him and drink. But according to Raymond Brown, the oracle of the John Gospel,  the verse "out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water" requires adjustment. He observes of the present translation that its unChristological interpretation of the source of living waters is due to Eastern Christian influence, affected by the Eastern reverence for Origen who emphasized that the perfect gnostic could become - through spiritual understanding of the Scriptures - a bubbling source of light and knowledge for others. In other words, the better reading of the verse would be "out of his (Christ's) heart shall flow rivers of living water," or "from within him shall flow rivers of living water," which is consistent with the Fourth Gospel's presentation of Jesus as the Wisdom figure par excellence. For example, compare "On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink . . . " with the Proverbs verses "Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. She calls from the highest places in the town . . . Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed " (Prov.1:20-21; 9:3,5) The various passages about Jesus as the true bread, we're reminded, refer primarily to the nourishment offered by the wisdom of his teaching.

The Spirit offers herself as a torrent, but how do we come to Jesus and drink? In the conversation of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, Jesus says, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is who is saying to you 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." So, asking is involved as well as coming and believing.

Asking for the living water of the Spirit has a varied treatment in the Gospels. Jesus tells us in the Synoptic Gospels that for us who know how to give good gifts to our children the Holy Spirit is guaranteed in abundance if we ask our heavenly Father, but of course we must ask. Yet in the Fourth Gospel Jesus says, "I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him."

I suggest that these scenarios of our asking and Jesus' asking can be harmonized under certain conditions such that our asking springs from an unknown part of ourselves as demonstrated by the Oregonians who at the cost of their lives intervened on behalf of the Muslim teens being abused on the train.  There the asking is a kind of casting oneself upon the torrent of living waters which flow from Jesus' inner being, a real abandonment of oneself to divine providence, where the agent is actually Jesus.
This can be put in more electronic terms: When the ordinary image of God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt, a Christian hard-wiring kicks in, activating the circuitry printed on our motherboards, including images of the Crucified like the serpent elevated in the wilderness for healing. There our asking and the asking of Jesus become united.

I'll further suggest that the Spirit Herself leads us in the quest, as illustrated by this Billy Collins poem about angels who, after all, as ministering spirits, are understudies for the Holy Spirit.

Of all the questions you might want to ask 
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time 
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God's body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, 
their diet of unfiltered divine light?
What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall
these tall presences can look over and see hell?

If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole 
in a river and would the hole float along endlessly
filled with the silent letters of every angelic word? 

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive 
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards? 

No, the medieval theologians control the court.
The only question you ever hear is about
the little dance floor on the head of a pin
where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.

It is designed to make us think in millions, 
billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse
into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one:
one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet,
a small jazz combo working in the background.

She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful 
eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over
to glance at his watch because she has been dancing
forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians. 

(Questions About Angels, in Sailing Alone Around the Room, New and Collected Poems, Billy Collins, Random House, 2002.)

This is a picture of how our better angels can lead us in the dance, and it calls to mind an episode in James Michener's novel The Source. In a nineteenth-century Russian village a friend of the local Jewish community is hanging out with colleagues in the saloon when he realizes that a pogrom against the Jews is building around him. He slips out a side door and runs to warn them, and discovers to his amazement that they have commenced a communal dance to purify themselves for death. They have commenced a communal dance, and the tall thin bassist leans over to glance at his watch because she has been dancing forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.

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