A reflection on the readings for Sunday, May 23, 2021 — the Feast of Pentecost.
Preach always, use words when necessary.” These are perhaps the most famous words of St. Francis of Assisi—or so we are told.
I have always had a complicated relationship with the oft-repeated words of that famous pseudo-quote. On the one hand, it sounds like a handy copout, a Franciscan-sanctioned excuse for the deep discomfort we have with talking about our faith or evangelizing in an explicit way. “Preaching without words” becomes code for simply not preaching at all. On the other hand, one of the reasons we feel uncomfortable reading aloud paragraphs from the catechism in a grocery store aisle is that we have correctly assumed that doing so would likely be of limited value. Our experiences in life have taught us that convincing another human being of something requires more than simply reciting a series of objective facts in their general direction.
If “preach always, use words when necessary” is a flawed model for evangelization, then where do we find our proper example? Pentecost gives us a glimpse of the answer. The action of Pentecost is not limited to the Holy Spirit descending, but also involves the disciples’ response to God’s action. Immediately after the descent of the Holy Spirit we see the Church spring into action through the disciples’ preaching, particularly in St. Peter’s sermon in the second chapter of Acts. Here Peter’s first post-Pentecost homily provides a model for all Christian preaching, liturgical and otherwise. What are we doing when we, like Peter, announce the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world? What do we learn here about the model for preaching “always”?
The preaching of the Christian faith undoubtedly always has an objective character. That is, it entails an encounter with a determinate historical subject, Jesus Christ. To announce the resurrection of Christ necessitates that it is definitively Christ that one is proclaiming. Christians affirm that Jesus is Lord, that he is the Christ who fulfilled the messianic prophecy, and that it is in him and only in him that one is saved. We preach this objective truth because it transforms the life of the individual who hears it proclaimed: Jesus of Nazareth is Lord and we must order our entire lives around him. The Christian message indicates that the Word, the principle of creation, became man and died upon a cross in order to shatter the power of darkness in the world. God himself suffered death and rose.
It is no coincidence, then, that kyrios Jesus—“Jesus is Lord”—is among the most ancient of Christian professions of faith. This Christ proclaimed by St. Peter in Jerusalem and heard in many tongues is Lord of all precisely because he is divine, the Word made flesh, the incarnate God. Acceptance of this ancient kerygma incorporates the believer into the one body of which Christ is the head. These three interconnected truths: that Christ is risen from the dead, that Jesus is Lord, and that he is divine are the basis upon which the Church is formed.
The Christian message is not, however, exclusively objective. There is also a subjective aspect: the unique, personal, and intimate action of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. Consider for a moment the concrete ways in which Christians most often share our faith. Through acts of charity a person shares his or her own experience of God by acting in persona Christi in caring for the poor, vulnerable, or downtrodden. Through prayer a person shares the very life of Christ both by example and by interceding on another’s behalf. Through the sacraments a person receives grace that is often experienced at a very personal and intimate level. None of these examples is primarily about relaying or hearing dogmatic truths but about God’s personal action. Even preaching—as objective as it might seem—is not just relaying knowledge about God, but is sharing the subjective experience of his grace that hearers might personally know God.
The proclamation of the Good News is thus not simply the relaying of facts or the testimony to the truth of various events (although it is that at one level). It is also a sharing of the experience of the triune God in an intimate way, both by recounting one’s own personal story and by inviting others to the same experience of conversion.
Both the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the disciples’ response in preaching the Gospel are necessary for the foundation of the Church and are necessary in that order. Receiving the Holy Spirit enables more than a mere familiarity with facts or events regarding the God of Israel. It fosters a personal and intimate relationship between God and the believer. This relationship is only actualized in the Church when it is then shared between believers, united in their common experience of relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit.
The Church is more than a body united by a common belief, it is a body united by a common relationship, a relationship which begins and deepens when both the objective and subjective elements of our faith are proclaimed. Because of this, Pentecost cannot be an event from the past that we simply commemorate and celebrate. As believers we must relive it in every moment, as the Holy Spirit inspires us to proclaim the Gospel and share our experiences of Christ’s saving grace with one another.
To read more about the objective/subjective nature of Peter’s Pentecost check out the work of the Croatian-Italian theologian Severino Dianich and for more on the intersubjective experience of the faith look to the Canadian theologian Bernard Lonergan.
Image: Saint Peter preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs by Jan Styka, Public Domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.