A reflection on the readings for Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022.
In her landmark best-seller, Why Walk When You Can Fly?, Australian author and spiritual teacher, Isha Judd narrates the following short story:
Once there was a king who received a gift of two magnificent falcons from Arabia. They were peregrine falcons, the most beautiful birds he had ever seen. He gave the precious birds to his head falconer to be trained. Months passed and one day the head falconer informed the king that though one of the falcons was flying majestically, soaring high in the sky, the other bird had not moved from its branch since the day it had arrived.
The king summoned healers and sorcerers from all the land to tend to the falcon, but no one could make the bird fly. He presented the task to the member of his court, but the next day, the king saw through the palace window that the bird had still not moved from its perch. Having tried everything else, the king thought to himself, “Maybe I need someone more familiar with the countryside to understand the nature of this problem.” So, he cried out to his court, “Go and get a farmer.”
In the morning, the king was thrilled to see the falcon soaring high above the palace gardens. He said to his court, “Bring me the doer of this miracle.” The court quickly located the farmer, who came and stood before the king. The king asked him, “How did you make the falcon fly?” With his head bowed, the farmer said to the king, “It was very easy, your highness. I simply cut the branch where the bird was sitting.”
This is a story that explains how most of us cling to our comfort zones—those places that are familiar to us—and settle for mediocre lives. “Well, it is so nice to be sitting in the comfort of this well-known branch,” we might think. It feels reassuring. It is secure. We don’t need to fight. We are familiar with our surroundings.
But the constant call of the Holy Spirit is for the branches which provide our comfort to be cut off. The time comes when the comfort zone must end. We must meet the world.
The word “Pentecost” literally means “fiftieth day,” and was used by Diaspora Jews to refer to a day-long harvest festival more commonly known as the “Feast of Weeks” (Shavuot) which was scheduled fifty days following Passover (Exodus 23:16; 34:22; Leviticus 23:15–21; Numbers 28:26; Deuteronomy 16:9–12). Pentecost was one of three pilgrimage feasts when the entire household of Israel gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the goodness of God toward his people.
After Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, despite the repeated appearances of Jesus, the apostles again sought their comfort zones. They thought there was nothing more to look forward to; no hope. It was comforting to get back to fishing. It was human to save themselves. They shut the door and stayed inside to feel comfortable. It was their comfort zone.
Then it was time to break them out of their comfort zones. So, the Holy Spirit came upon them as the sound of a violent, “strong driving wind” (Acts 2:2). This was a noisy affair with special effects—we hear that the Holy Spirit came upon them like “tongues as of fire” (2:3). Fire imagery was frequently used in the contemporary Jewish (e.g., Philo, Pseudo-Philo) and Greco-Roman popular writings (e.g., Quintillian, Plutarch), symbolizing the bodily experiences of prophetic inspiration that occurred when the spirit of prophecy awakened and elevated the prophet’s ability to think, reason, and speak. With this one experience of the Spirit coming upon them, the possibility that the apostles will go back to their past lives disappears. From now on they were people with the prophetic fire. They are prophets, and prophets do not remain in their comfort zones.
The crowd of “devout Jews” (2:5) hears “this sound” (2:6), whose source is the “Galileans” (2:7) who have suddenly begun speaking “in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (2:4). In first-century Palestine, the Galileans were notorious for their lack of linguistic talent. But when the Holy Spirit came upon them, the crowd comprised of people from 15 nations could understand the not-so-talented apostles, who were now “speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God” (2:11).
The safe walls the apostles had been hiding behind are broken. They can no longer remain in their comfort zone as simple, ignorant Galileans. Now they are not language-challenged Galilean fishermen; they have been pushed out of their secret home by the Spirit of God to stand in front of the crowd and speak about God’s deeds of power.
The Holy Spirit is not a personal gift from God that each apostle privatized— “you can have your Spirit if I can have mine.” There is one Spirit of God, who “appeared among them…and came to rest on each one of them” (2:3). The comfort zone of being independent individuals is gone. The comfort zone of each one existing for oneself is broken by the Holy Spirit; extreme individualism is shattered. And the Holy Spirit gave birth to them as the first Church, as the one people of God.
What we have heard today is the systematic work of the Holy Spirit who keeps breaking the comfort zones of the apostles. This Spirit of God pushed them out of the safety of their homes; overcame their defenses that they were simple, ignorant people; and shattered their individualism. It was only then that they became prophets who spoke languages that the world could understand and witnessed the birth of the Church.
In his homily on April 13, 2016, the Holy Father Pope Francis pointed out how the Holy Spirit annoys us to move forward. He said,
…the Holy Spirit annoys us, because he moves us, he makes us travel, he pushes the Church forward. And we are like Peter at the Transfiguration: ‘Oh, how wonderful it is for us to be here, all together!’ so long as it does not inconvenience us. We would like the Holy Spirit to doze off. We want to subdue the Holy Spirit. And that just will not work. The Spirit of God breaks our comfort zones to move forward. And this is bothersome.
We can recall other scriptural figures who were pushed by the Spirit of God outside of their comfort zones. Noah did not remain in his comfort zone; he built an ark to save the earth. Abram did not remain in the comfort of his native land and people; he moved out of his to become the father of faith. Moses did not remain in the comfort zone of tending the sheep; he stood in front of Pharaoh to set his people free.
The apostles had to give up their comfort zone to preach the Gospel and be the Church. It would have been very comfortable to maintain the Mosaic law of circumcision. Yet the Spirit of God would break the comfort zone of traditions and set the people of God free from circumcision. The apostles write, as Pope Francis paraphrased Acts 15:25, “the Holy Spirit and we have decided.”
What we may see as disorder in the community and the church today is really the work of the Holy Spirit breaking our comfort zones, demanding that we see the writings on the wall, act and move forward. Pentecost is an invitation to break from the comfort zones of by-gone traditions, rituals, affiliations, languages, and oppositions. It is the time of the Holy Spirit. Let the Holy Spirit break our comfort zones so that we, the Church, can be what we are called to be.
Image Credit: By Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Christ. Web Gallery of Art, Public Domain.
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.