Daily Reflection
May 29th, 2004
Eileen Burke-Sullivan
Theology Department
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The Vigil of Pentecost

There are two choices for reflection today, the Saturday of the 7th Week of Easter or the Vigil of Pentecost, and I am choosing to share a few thoughts on the latter because it is one of the richest and yet most poorly understood and underpractised aspects of our liturgical tradition. Vigil keeping deserves both more consideration and practice for the purpose of shaping us into the Body of Christ. In simplest terms vigil keeping is the act of waiting together (by God’s command and intent) in mutual hope for some great act of God to be fulfilled according to the promise of God.  In one sense, the Passover Supper of the Jews is a perfect model. They understood that God commanded them to gather as families, put on their shoes, pack their things, take up a walking stick and eat a rather full meal in preparation for God’s great act of liberation which then required them to move – to run, as it were – for their freedom.  Today’s Jews celebrate the meal in thanksgiving for God’s saving deeds of the past and in memory, that is hope and expectation, that God will do in us what God did for them – bring liberation from all that enslaves and binds them to death.
For Catholics and other Christians who continue to share the ancient liturgical traditions, the “mother” of all vigils is the Easter Vigil – when we sit together and await the fulfillment of the greatest act of God, the liberation of Jesus from the finality of death – like modern Jews with their Pesach, we do it in memory, that is hope and expectation, that God will raise us from death, the death of sin and oppression here and now, and physical death when it occurs for each of us.

But today, that is May 29, 2004 we are invited to celebrate the second greatest Vigil (yes, it ranks higher than the Christmas Vigil in the Tradition) in the Church’s liturgical life – a Vigil in memory, that is hope and expectation, of the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the followers of the Risen Lord. Today’s vigil-keeping requires us to gather with the community of believers and to tell the sacred stories of how the Spirit of God “WORKS” in and among those who have been chosen or those who seek God’s way and desire.  A well-celebrated vigil takes several hours in order to hear the larger story, as those who participate in the Easter Vigil can testify.  That extension of time is actually part of the sacramental character of the Vigil – it requires of us that we wait together in patient hope for what is unseen, but believed because of God’s activities in the past.  We Catholics are an impatient crew in general, however, and too often our pastors and liturgy planners take the short form and offer us only a brief taste of our hope and expectation by proclaiming only one of the texts offered for our meditation (or worse, do not even acknowledge the Church’s plan that we wait in hope and expectation, and rush instead to the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost at the Vigil Mass instead of granting us the gift of a Vigil Liturgy!)

Today’s Vigil liturgy offers us four extravagant images of God’s Spirit in action: 1) The Tower of Babel story from Genesis which sets us up to recognize that God’s Spirit both undermines sinful human plans and structures, and (ultimately) builds up by God’s plan and structures; 2) The dramatic hierophany (fire and thunder) on Mount Sinai by which Israel is made a priestly people by God’s Spirit coming to dwell among them, giving them a law (teaching) of how to be community with and for one another in justice and mercy; 3) The coming of the Spirit of life into the dry bones on the plain through the agency of the “Son of Man.”  This prophetic text is often seen as one of the most important in pointing out the power of Jesus’ Resurrection – what God has done in the Son of Man – God is doing for all humankind; 4) And finally, the coming of God’s Spirit as a new order in the heavens and earth through which all humankind will be rescued or saved from the tribulations of humanity’s sin.  Young and all, men and women will discover a new life in God’s Spirit being poured out into our hearts such that it spills over into our lives.

When we hear these glorious texts can our hearts resist being stirred to hope – as Paul’s letter to the Romans insists – hope and expectation that God’s Spirit will again be poured into our lives with the dawn of Pentecost upon us?  As we gaze at our broken and disordered world must we not hope and expect that God will do more in us tomorrow than has yet been accomplished?  John’s Gospels witnessed that we will do even greater things than Jesus was able to do in his lifetime because God’s Spirit – that Spirit he shares with the Father - will bond us to his death and his resurrection which is the source and empowerment of new life upon the earth. 

If we wait in hope and expectation with our brothers and sister in keeping Vigil upon the outpouring of God’s Spirit (“rivers of living water”) we will know more and more fully the power of Pentecost to wash over our world bringing it new life through our Christified human lives at this moment of history.  Can you think of any better way to spend a Saturday evening in May?!

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