First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-31, 34
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 12:3-7 12-13 or St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 5:16-25
Gospel: According to St. John 20:19-23 or 15:26-27; 16:12-15
For many in the English-speaking world this Sunday is known not as Pentecost, but as Whitsun or Whitsunday. In Ireland and Great Britain, as well as in the Anglican and Methodist communions around the world, this Sunday’s name is derived not from the Greek term that references the fifty days from the rising of Christ on Easter Sunday to the descent of the Holy Spirit, but from a much more local source.
The British Isles’ name for this feast highlights either – depending upon the tradition that you follow –the white (whit in Old English) garments worn by the newly baptized or the wisdom (wyt in Old English) imparted by the Holy Spirit. Either way, the term helps Christians to focus on the purity of the gift that was bestowed upon the Apostles in the upper room and continues to be granted through the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
In works of art from paintings to novels to films, colors have tremendous symbolic value. Brown can call to mind the soil and humility, whereas purple conveys royalty and power. The color most usually associated with Pentecost is red – representing the tongues of fire that literally are meant to enflame the passion of faith in the followers of Jesus. But the white of Whitsun indicates the necessity of purity in the gifts bestowed upon us through the Holy Spirit as well as the necessity of purity in worthily living up to those gifts.
In the alternate second reading for this feast, St. Paul reminds his audience in Galatia that there are two paths that a person can follow in life: the path of the flesh and the path of the Spirit. Those who follow the lead of the Spirit will achieve eternal beatitude, while those on the other path, in the words of St. Paul, “will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”
So as not to be misunderstood, St. Paul makes sure that his audience knows very clearly those activities that are associated with each path. The “works of flesh” that lead to ruin are, he says, “obvious” and should surprise no one: they are specific manifestations of the seven deadly sins. On the other hand, the works guided by the Holy Spirit show forth as “love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
Problematic for our world is the ease with which we can give in to the “desires of the flesh” and find ourselves, almost without realizing it, on the wrong path. In his very entertaining, yet theologically and psychologically profound, novella The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis puts the following words into the mouth of Screwtape, the elder demon who is giving advice to his nephew Wormwood on how to lead people down the road to perdition: “Indeed the safest road to hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
We 21st Century Christians find ourselves in a world all too conducive to Screwtape’s chilling vision. To St. Paul and his contemporaries, those sins spoken of in the Letter to the Galatians would have been seen as flashing billboards along the road to hell. Today, such behavior is so commonplace that people barely take notice, and when they do take notice their reaction is often amusement or envy rather than horror or sadness.
In the end, either Screwtape or the Holy Spirit will hold sway in the life of every person, and although there may be no signposts on the path that leads to hell, there is one essential signpost on the path of eternal life. Those who are on the road that leads to the Kingdom will never be out of sight of the Cross that is the only signpost needed in order to be assured that we are following and living by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.