The Wild Ride
- Pentecost, a quilt by Linda Schmidt
I remembered this 2006 article on Pentecost by James Alison - The wild ride - from The Tablet and thought I'd post it here ....
Luke's tableau of Pentecost, sketched out for us in Acts 2, is an extraordinarily deft compilation of scriptural fulfilments. In such tableaux, the odder the detail, the better we remember it. So most people remember best the tongues of fire resting on each of the gathered. Yet there is scarcely a word in Luke's description that does not bring with it a set of allusions from Scripture. The Lord promised to speak to his people by means of strange men and a new tongue (Isaiah 28.11) - and, as in Acts, there are even drunkards in that prophecy. The mighty wind (or breath) is the east wind which Yahweh used to divide the sea into seven streams so that the people could pass over dry shod (Isaiah 11.15, Exodus 14.21). The house that is filled with the Spirit is an allusion to the Temple (usually referred to as the 'House') being filled with the Presence during Solomon's consecration of it (2 Chronicles 5.2 and 13; 1 Kings 8.10). Through the tongues, the fire, one of the true Temple furnishings hidden away at Josiah's Reformation, and absent from the second Temple standing in Jesus' time, is being returned to the New Temple which is being brought into being. This was in fulfilment of a messianic prophecy which saw that, when the Messiah came, all the Holy Things which had been lost to the Temple would be restored in the New Temple. The Ark is of course already there, in the person of Mary. She had been recognised as Ark when John the Baptist, in Elizabeth's womb, danced before her - Luke's Greek word is the same as that used of David dancing before the Ark in the Septuagint. This is the Ark that bore the new and living covenant.
Furthermore, the tongues were divided out upon those gathered, an odd word in Greek, but the same as is used in Zechariah 14.1: 'A day of the Lord is coming, when the spoil taken from you will be divided out in the midst of you'. So the sacrificial death of Jesus, the New Covenant who issued forth from the new Ark, is divided out, like portions, among those gathered in and as the New Temple. The Presence has the shape of the Passion. This is also the place where the Lord fulfilled his promise to Ezekiel to give a new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36 and 37), which was the same as putting the law within them, as Jeremiah had promised (Jeremiah 31). Going back still further, this is the fulfilment of what Moses had prayed for in Numbers 11, but which had not happened at the time: there the Lord took some of the spirit that was in Moses and gave it to 70 elders, who prophesied for a short time and then no more. When trouble arose because some others who hadn't been among the elders were also prophesying, Moses said: 'Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.'
And of course, the gathering together of all the nations and languages in Jerusalem reflects the beginning of the undoing of Babel, where tongues became confused as a punishment for the pride of those who would have made one language which would have controlled the whole earth. Here God undoes the confusion without imposing a single language, but enables the single truth to be spread throughout all the nations of the earth, thus permitting for the first time a non-controlling unity of all humans. It is the same truth in all translations, none 'purer' than the other, for we are all secondary cultures. Back even beyond this, the Spirit which comes down is the same Spirit as that which hovered over the earth. It is the Creator who is erupting into his people.
These scriptural references are not present as a checklist, so that we can see God fulfilling his promises, and tick them off one by one. Each is present as a glimpse, a lens, on to something of enormous power which is happening and which neither we, nor any of our stories, or allusions, can control or adequately describe. For what is happening is a seismic act of communication. The Creator is coming among us as protagonist who will lead us into all truth, opening up Creation for us, but he is doing so at our level, indeed involving us on the inside of opening up Creation.
What is the shape of our Creator's protagonism? One of the terms which emerges most frequently is 'Advocate' - meaning 'Counsel for the Defence' - in other words someone who is For Us, undoing all and any sense of cosmic conspiracy. The Protagonism, the driving force of the Spirit, is For Us, it is not out to get us, or entrap us, as other spirits, both sacred and secular, do. And the Protagonism is in the process of turning us from being a 'they' into a 'we'. Our very pattern of desire, which is the basis for our 'self', is being transformed from within, so that we learn to desire anew, and thus to become new from within. And the route to this is the Spirit stretching us in prayer. By the Holy Spirit God is no longer an 'it' which is outside us, or even an 'I AM' in whose presence we are always a 'they'. By the Holy Spirit we are being taken into the inside of God's life, so that our very 'I' might become part of the 'I' of God who has risked sharing that with us: this is what Paul understood when he says: 'It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me'. He has not been displaced by a spirit, but recreated from within by the Spirit.
At Pentecost the real protagonist of Creation emerges. And it becomes clear that Creation itself has become, and is becoming, a human drama in which we participate starting from where we are. One of the first moves of this driving force would be to set up the dwelling of God with humans as something which is not sacred, as the doomed Temple was sacred, hence the apparent secularity of the New Temple, consecrated in an Upper Room. A short time later the purity legislation which marked off the sacred from the profane will be brought down, with the baptism of Cornelius. And so the shape of the Protagonist reveals itself to us, neither sacred nor secular, but Holy, creating a relatively benign secular that is able to bear witness to the glory of God by manifesting Creation coming fully alive. And ever since then, the wild ride has been on, and the rows about what it all means, and the deep peace which goes with being carried into the heart of God.