BY RORY COONEY
DIRECTOR OF LITURGY AND MUSIC
There was no fifty-day wait for the Holy Spirit the way that the author of the fourth gospel tells the story. With Jesus in control of his destiny, choreographing his arrest, trials, and death, John makes it appear that the Holy Spirit can’t wait to be unleashed on the world. The moment of the Spirit’s arrival seems to be the moment when Jesus returns to the Father, that is, when he breathes his last. (Or aspirates his last, from the Latin spirare, to breathe, from which is derived the word spiritus. As in other ancient languages, this root can mean wind, breath, or spirit.) The New American Bible, Revised Edition beautifully captures this nuance in John’s gospel in the moment Jesus dies on the cross, as we heard on Good Friday:
When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
This echoes what Jesus had promised in 16:7, during his farewell discourse at the Last Supper, when he said, “It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
Then, on the evening of the first day of the week, with the doors locked, Jesus appears to the ten (at least). I figure Judas was gone, and Thomas was the only one of the twelve who wasn’t too afraid to show his face in public—the only one who wasn’t a coward, and he’s the one who gets the bad rap. (I didn’t notice that on my own—it was Rosemary Reuther or Sandra Schneiders.) There may have been others in the upper room as well; but maybe they too were absent: women who had gone about their business getting food to nourish the frightened band.
But what John records about the moment of reunion is that Jesus appears in their midst, and…
(Jesus) said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit.”
There it is. This is the birth of the Church, the Christ-ening of the gathered disciples after the resurrection, according to John. With these words, in this moment, the church is anointed with the very Spirit that anointed Jesus and made him messiah, the Christ. The apostles, and we along with them, are sent “as the Father sent” him, to announce the jubilee of God, forgiveness of debt, and the arrival of the reign of God.
I love this text for its literary and theological brevity, and for what it says about the nature of Christ and the Church. There are at least three elements in this short passage that anchor the text and send their roots back into the rest of the gospel and outward into the church’s future:
- The mission of the Messiah is handed over to the community of disciples;
- The gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the church to enable us in that mission;
- The church’s mission is forgiveness and therefore unity, as Jesus had prayed in the Last Supper “priestly prayer.”
The messianic mission of service (foot-washing), forgiveness, and announcing the reign of God is passed on to us with the gift of the Holy Spirit. In God being and doing are one and the same; so, should it be with us. The gift of the Spirit doesn’t start an elitist club of God’s people. Pentecost is a new start, the undoing of Babel, a new covenant. For John, Pentecost happens on the cross and is made explicit here, in this moment, when Jesus breathes again upon the disciples. His breath, his spiritus, is the anointing of the Holy Spirit. This is not our doing. As the psalm today says, “This is God’s work. It is beautiful to see.” (Ps. 118:23)
Adapted from “The Fifty-hour Pentecost,” on my blog, “Gentle Reign,” 4/7/13