At the time of writing, Christians across the world are celebrating the feast of Pentecost which traditionally takes place fifty days after Easter Sunday (from the Greek Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē) meaning ‘fiftieth’). Despite Pentecost not necessarily receiving the attention which Christmas and Easter get in the wider secular world, it is a significant Holy Day in the life of the Church as it marks the ‘grand finale’ of the Easter Season and celebrates the very beginning, the birthday, of the Christian Church.
Christmas and Easter are of course, special and important celebrations which give us the chance to reflect on their stories and on all our many blessings. However, I do feel that Pentecost has a special sacredness which is quite unique, and which translates beautifully into our lives today. Imagine, a group of friends gathering to share a meal and to pray following the untimely and sudden loss of one of their own. Not just a friend but a man whom they had followed, a man whom they believed was the son of God, a man whom they had left their jobs and families to follow, a man who humbly went to his death and had, to all intents and purposes, abandoned them. However, that day is a special one which changes their lives forever when God sends his Holy Spirit to them in the form of a powerful wind and bright burning flames. This gift of the Holy Spirit brings the very first Christians the power of renewal and possibilities of new beginnings. The Holy Spirit transforms Jesus’ followers and empowers them to go boldly out into the street able to tell the world of Jesus’ sacrifice and of the new life which His message brings. Every year the celebration of Pentecost reminds Christians of the renewing and transforming power of the Holy Spirit and encourages all of us to be open to God’s ‘newness’.
During the past eighteen months the world has, and continues to, face vast changes due to Covid -19 and the pandemic has touched every part of our lives. From how we shop, to who we can gather with, how we work, and I think most significantly, how we care for, and look out for each other. It remains an anxious time for many because of the changes and adaptations we must continue to make. The pandemic has made everyone stop and reflect on what and who is important in our lives and for millions of people has changed their lives entirely. For me, this shock change in the world has reminded me that as humans we are resilient and can adapt. It has also shown us that it is the way we look at and handle the change that is important. Life is changeable and unpredictable, and we become subject to changes which are often beyond our control. Pentecost is a Holy Day which reminds Christians that God, through the Holy Spirit, changes us and equally that He is with us through changes and will not abandon us. In difficult times our relationship with God changes, and for people who have suffered loss of loved ones or been ill themselves there will likely be the question of ‘why me?’ And this is a difficult one to grapple with. I have felt myself get very angry about the suffering and injustice in the world recently and, as difficult as it has sometimes been, I have to remind myself that there is still good in the world and that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned us. On that moment of change in the Upper Room, Jesus sent his friends the promised gift of the Holy Spirit to stay with them, and all of humanity, and to remind us that he will not abandon us.
In a Pentecost vigil this year Pope Francis reminded us of God’s promise and personal encouragement to be open to His changing power:
“Let us be changed by the Holy Spirit so that we can change the world. God is faithful, He never reneges on His promise,”.
Pope Francis encourages Christians to welcome God’s transforming gift of the Holy Spirit into their hearts and lives and I cannot help but wonder if the celebration of Pentecost has been very close to Pope Francis’ heart throughout his papacy as he is often leaning on the side of change. He has talked about the need for the Church to embrace change as it journeys and continues to grow as a missionary Church. In 2015 in Florence, Pope Francis said to the gathered Bishops that even Christian doctrine “is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, queries, but it’s alive, and able to unsettle, animate.” Doctrine, Francis said, “has a face that isn’t rigid, a body that moves and develops, it has tender flesh: that of Jesus Christ.” Hearing this I cannot help but be reminded of Ecclesiastes 3:1 “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” What season the Church’s current doctrine is in I could not tell you, but for Pope Francis to speak of something like church doctrine – which for so many, both lay and clergy, is fixed and absolute – as not being a ‘closed system’ is no throw away comment. Perhaps he wants us to be open to listening to the Spirit in order to discern a season of change. Despite his words, there are still many Catholics who feel that Pope Francis will not go far enough with discussing and implementing change in the church and that urgent radical reform is needed.
I feel that this shows that there are currently two distinct dialogues around change for our current Pope. One is a forum for discussion about change on an organisational level for the Church which will take time and discernment and prayer, and the other is a forum for discourse on personal change which the Pope encourages in all Christian’s lives today. It feels almost as if he is saying that ‘yes’ there are changes which need to be made in the Church including implementing some of the changes which need to be made following the council of Vatican II which was nearly sixty years ago. These structural changes, Pope Francis appears to say cannot happen overnight, but he asserts that personal change, the change which the Holy Spirit brings to us individually, can happen instantly and has the power to change the world.
There is no doubt that Pope Francis has to manage the expectations of a diverse global church as well as listen to the Holy Spirit and what it says to his own heart. I don’t think that it is going too far to say that for Pope Francis to even speak about being open to change, is refreshing and renewing for many Catholics and challenges us to think about our life and faith at a deeper, philosophical level. Such a dialogue around change is not one dimensional but can challenge us to look at our place in the world and this has further resonances beyond a single denomination.
If we look at Buddhist philosophy, we see that change and renewal are also significant and central to Buddha’s teaching of impermanence where nothing in the universe is static or fixed. Buddha taught that everything in the universe is subject to change and that nothing is permanent. He asserts that humans should move beyond the illusion that everything is rigid and unchangeable. These major concepts challenge us and I mention them because they speak to us about our place in the universe, which Pope Francis does also. This is why I feel that the central message of Pentecost, of renewal and the power to change brought to us by the Holy Spirit are important for Pope Francis. He sees that this story which began in a small room in Jerusalem has a far reaching human message speaking to all of us about how we relate to each other and how we can bring about positive change in our lives.
Recently, whilst sitting by the sea, both the teachings of Buddha and some of the reflections from Pope Francis on The Holy Spirit and change really resonated with me. I am someone who feels anxious about change and is often gripped by panic about the future and the ‘unknown’ which lies ahead. This is a feeling shared by so many of us at the moment and leaves us feeling unsettled and uncomfortable. Generally, we resist change because it makes us vulnerable, and it opens us up to unknown possibilities beyond our control. Sitting by the sea watching the tide come in and the waves wash against the shore of thousands of small, millennia old stones, made me see the importance of opening our hearts to the inevitability and possibilities of change because the Holy Spirit is there and won’t abandon us. I think we can all be like Jesus’ disciples in that room in Jerusalem, afraid and anxious as flesh and blood humans but also gifted with the ability to make changes in our lives which in turn could enable us to go on and change the world.