As we sped underneath the waters of the English Channel (do they call it the French Channel on this side?) I marveled again at such technology and tried not to think of the seas above us. Security had been increased at the London St. Pancras Station, and as we edged step by step in line with too much luggage to drag and hoist onto the belt and the x-ray machines and then maneuver through passport control, I tried not to think of terrorism in crowded public places.
Our modern world has paid a price for its modernity. Village or neighborhood risk has expanded to world-wide risk. We read of tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes far away and we mourn the victims. We follow wars and genocides and beheadings as though they were close by. The world has shrunk to our phone or laptop or TV.
No wonder some are depressed, angered, and grieved. No wonder the suicide rates rise and euthanasia even considered. We feel for the planet, its peoples. Their sufferings are ours. While it seems at times too much for one person to bear, perhaps it is good to know these things happen and can happen; perhaps it is good that we are forced to look and see, to pull our heads out of the proverbial sand. But history attests that disaster is not new, whether natural or manmade; what is new is that we are aware of such horrors, we watch them unfold, sometimes on live media.
But then, for Christians, we have our annual festival of Pentecost, the breath of the Holy Spirit breathing upon the disciples in Jerusalem. The disciples are given the wondrous power of language, to speak to those of differing tongues about the wonderful works of God. And such language, such speech, was repeated again and again in sermons and holy suppers that first century of the Church. These words, forming at first an oral tradition, were finally written down, first in St. Paul’s letters and St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, and then in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Those codices, thought by many to have been the first use of the codex (leafed book) as opposed to scrolls, were again copied and recopied through the centuries down to the present day.
So not only do we have the horizontal present-day knowledge of events worldwide, but we have vertical timeline knowledge, memory connecting the past to the present, coloring it. This timeline forms a historical highway leading to a crossroads where these two paths of knowledge meet. And of course, the road to the past also travels into the future, and we look ahead to the next minute, hour, day, week, year, and to our final passing into another, better world. We look back to our personal past and forward to our personal future; we look back to humanity’s past and forward to humanity’s future. And all the while we absorb the events of the world in the present day, surrounding us and demanding our constant attention.
We have in a sense eaten of the tree of knowledge, and we suffer for it. I am happy to have modern medicine and hygiene and the comforts of today, central heating and plumbing and running water. But science goes further than basic comforts; it allows us to design babies and kill those left over or unwanted. Such knowledge is godlike and without God’s help, we are lost in a sea of facts, data, with no good way to make sense of the jumble. The tree of knowledge, without God, produces poisonous fruit, deathly fruit.
And so God gives us that help if we desire it. I love this Pentecost scene in Acts 2, when the disciples receive the power of the Holy Spirit. This breath of God comes upon them as a “rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house… there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire… upon each of them.” They are empowered by God; they have been given the means to express the profound events of the Incarnation and Resurrection that they have witnessed. Until this moment they had hid, timid, afraid, waiting for a promise made at the Ascension. After this moment they knew what to do; they knew what to say; they knew to whom to say it, where to say it, and above all how to say it. And of course, in time they confessed to what they had seen with their lives, as martyrs, with the exception of St. John.
Pentecost is the union of God and man. It is the filling of man with God. And soon, as the disciples broke bread as Christ instructed them to do, consecrating the bread and wine to become his body and blood, taking and eating, and re-membering (re-forming) him, as they met together for these holy suppers of thanksgiving, eucharists, they became more and more filled with God, through his Spirit and his Son.
God made sense of the marvelous works he had done on the Cross and in the empty tomb. He had made sense of it all and of all of us and our wars and our disasters. We too can enjoy this making-sense; we too can take and eat and re-member; we too can find answers to the disturbing tumult around us. We need only head for our local church.
Paris is tumultuous and full of tourists this late in May. But on Sunday mornings it suddenly becomes quiet. The streets are silent, some empty. Families gather for brunch or bask in the parks. Lovers stroll. Cats scrounge for scraps in the open cafes. But the balmy weather is edged with sudden chill and brisk breezes and clouds scuttle over an ever-changing sky. The river rolls under the many bridges, and plane trees, lushly green, are happy with the end of winter.
We stepped through the quiet lanes this morning to say prayers with other faithful at the ancient church of St. Severen (13th C), and we followed the French Messe on the handout as best we could. The church was packed; candles flamed, stained glass glittered over high gothic double ambulatories; children in white capes and headbands with Holy Spirit paper flames, joined the procession. The songs and the singing echoed up and over us, swirling into the vaults.
At peace with the city, with ourselves, and with God, we made our way to the Bateau-Mouches, the riverboats, to see Paris from the Seine. I thought how, at least for a time, everything made perfect sense, this Pentecote Sunday in Paris.