Pentecost Sunday falls this year on 31 May. It brings to a close the Lenten and Easter Seasons which began this year on Ash Wednesday on 26 February. It has been the strangest Lenten and Easter Season in my life.
It began with me spending Ash Wednesday in the hospital (for something, by the way, unrelated to the coronavirus.) Later, as we prepared to start Holy Week, a dear friend died of COVID-19; he was 54. I spent Easter Sunday and now Pentecost practicing social distancing, wearing a face mask, and wondering how I will deal with latex gloves when the New York summer hits. (I hate gloves, even in the winter.)
To be honest: for the first time in 75 years, the time between Ash Wednesday and Pentecost Sunday has been a blur.
I mention this not because my experience is unique but precisely because it is not unique. Intensely personal? Of course. Unique? Not at all.
During this period, the world has had to face a pandemic. More than 350,000 people around the world have died of COVID-19 and the number increases every minute. The U.S., which has 4.25 percent of the world’s population, has seen 28.5 percent (about 100,000) of the COVID-19 deaths. The grief, pain and human suffering caused by this staggers the imagination. It is no wonder that for many of us the past three months (Lenten and Easter Seasons) have been a blur—often a painful blur.
And as we enter Ordinary Time next Monday, the one thing of which we are certain is that it will be anything but ordinary.
Reflecting on this, I approached the readings for this Sunday. The first reading is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Chapter 2 recounts the events of that first Pentecost Sunday and sets the scene for the liturgy. It struck me that, while the Holy Spirit is not mentioned often in the New Testament, today’s texts from Acts and from Paul— especially 1 Corinthians — tend to determine the average believer’s impression of the Holy Spirit. And the impression we get is that of the Holy Spirit, wind and fire, agent of the spectacular, the extraordinary.
While that is not inaccurate, it is definitely not the whole picture.
John, with his theology of the Paraclete, paints a different picture of the Holy Spirit. His writing, however, is not easy to read. There is a reason he is sometimes referred to as John “the Divine,” using the medieval word for “theologian.” When speaking of the Paraclete, John does not use imagery that captures the imagination and inspires artistic representation. However, this year it was precisely the presentation of the Holy Spirit in John that caught my attention.
In the Last Supper narrative in John’s Gospel (which is several times longer than that of the other three evangelists combined!), Jesus mentions that he is going to ask the Father to send “another Paraclete.” The expression “another Paraclete” is odd until we realize that in 1 John 2:1 we are told “we have an advocate (paraklētos) with the Father, Jesus Christ, the just one….” So, when Jesus speaks of “another Paraclete,” he is indicating someone other than himself.
The word “paraclete” is a Greek word with many meanings; indeed, the esteemed theologian Raymond Brown in his book “The Gospel According to John” dedicates seven pages of very small print to the different meanings of paraklētos in Greek. It can mean a defense witness or defense attorney in a court of law; it can mean a helper or consoler in grief. That is probably the reason it often appears untranslated but anglicized as “Paraclete” in many editions of the New Testament. One of my favorite translations of “paraclete,” however, is the German Beistand — literally, “the one who stands by you.”
It is further clear that Jesus is talking about a paraclete other than himself in John 16:7 “…unless I (Jesus) go, the Paraclete will not come to you.” That is to say, the sending of the Paraclete is part of the Father’s plan of salvation after the Ascension and Exaltation of the risen Christ at his right hand. Jesus is leaving to return to the Father but the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, will be with his followers forever, with them and in them (16:16-17), teaching and reminding them of all Jesus as said (16:26). The Paraclete—and the believers—are witnesses to Christ (15:26) in spite of the “world” hating them. The Spirit of Truth will lead the disciples to the complete truth (16:13) and will glorify Jesus (16:14).
In a very real way, the Spirit-Paraclete is the one whom Jesus asks the Father to send to stabilize the community of his followers after his departure. This will also open them to the possibility of him being with them in a new way — in the indwelling of the Father, Son and Spirit in all believers forever.
The notion of the Spirit-Paraclete in John’s Gospel is extremely important for later generations of Christians—an audience of which John is acutely aware. If the events of that first Pentecost Sunday and the “gifts of the Spirit” among the Christians of Corinth are truly spectacular, the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth in John’s Gospel, is the Spirit of God for believers for the long haul.
If on that first Pentecost Sunday, the Spirit spectacularly addressed Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Phrygians and, yes, even visitors from Rome, in 2020 the Spirit-Paraclete, the Consoler, the Encourager, the “one who stands by us” addresses a very different audience: an audience of the frightened, the sick, the grieving, those unsure of the future, the shell-shocked — all struggling to hope and believe.
Jesus promised his followers that he would not leave them/us alone as orphans. Even in a pandemic, Jesus is true to his word.