GIFTED AND GIVEN
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection Pentecost Sunday May 31, 2009
Pentecost Sunday liturgy makes much of “speaking” and “hearing.” These are two human activities most of us who can talk and who have good ears most likely take for granted – on a daily basis! Just imagine how hard life would be if we suddenly lost the capacity to speak, and the capacity to hear!
“Speaking” and “hearing” … these are the two nodal points of the miracle of Pentecost. We are told that “each one heard them speaking in his own language.” They even asked, “Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?” From the report of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, it seems hard to decide which is which. Did the disciples suddenly learn to speak different languages or did the people hear them each in his or her own language? Was the miracle on the side of those “speaking” or on the side of those who were “hearing?”
The issue may not be easy to resolve. And neither may it be an important one to resolve at all. As a non-biblical scholar, I lack the tools to even essay an educated guess. But I do know that it was a miracle wrought by no less than He who promised to send the Spirit “who would guide [us] to all truth” (Jn 16:13). That may be all we need to know for now. It was a miracle plain and simple, a miracle with two sides, a twin-faceted wonder involving two sides of the same reality, two complementary truths that point to a picture of what humans are like in the long run, and what ought to characterize the human response to a miracle from above.
I would like to suggest that the miracle of Pentecost, which is basically that of God’s generous outpouring of His gifts to His people, has to do with both “speaking” and “hearing.” It has to do with one giving, and another one receiving. It has to do with one talking and another one listening. It has to do with one “acting,” and another one allowing himself/herself to be “acted upon.” It has to do with ACTION and PASSION. It is all about divine-human cooperation. It is all about God taking initiative on our behalf and us responding to his grace. What good is a gift without a recipient? What good is a recipient without the gift? Giver and gifted … both ought to interact with each other. The giver’s graciousness is acknowledged only if the gifted receives the gift with open hearts and arms. And the gifted glorifies both giver and gift when he becomes himself given to others as gift in return. A gift is freely given. The gifted acknowledges the gift and perfects it by being given in return.
There is no mistaking what the disciples did. Just as soon as they received the gifts that came as a strong wind that “filled the entire house,” gifts that “appeared to them as tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them,” “they began to speak in different tongues” and “each one heard them speaking in his own language.”
As a middle aged man and having been teaching or forming young people for more than 30 years, (ten years as seminary formator), I have gotten to slowly realize how hard it is for modern women and men to do so much as acknowledge with gratitude all the good things we get from whomever. I have heard parents complain about children and adolescents not seemingly able to appreciate the many sacrifices they do for their children. I have heard so much complaint about the painful lack of gratitude from the very people they have done so much good to. Modern people seem to be less able to acknowledge, let alone appreciate, the good that others do for them gratuitously. We all have lost the art of saying, “Thank you” at the very least.
Reciprocity is the right word to encapsulize all this. Reciprocity speaks of mutuality. It speaks of “return” for favors received. It speaks of a reciprocal commitment from both giver and gifted.
Today, Pentecost Sunday, it is definitely good to dwell on the nature of the gifts we all have received. St. Paul today names some of them. In fact, he says, “there are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.”
But it would also be beneficial for us to dwell on our responsibility in the face of all this giftedness of ours. Mere acknowledgement or appreciation of the said gifts just would not do. Something more is expected of us … something more than just saying a casual “thank you.” That is very clear in today’s alternative second reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Being “guided by the Spirit,” Paul tells them to avoid certain forms of behavior, and in their place, exhorts them to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
Gifts, these all are from the Spirit. Gifted therefore, is what we all are. And given – that is, committed - to the same spiritual values and gifts, this is what we all are called to be. “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit.”
I perceive a clear call from the liturgy today to be “doers” and not mere “hearers of the Word.” (James 1:22) I perceive a clear reminder for us to be part of this ongoing miracle of Pentecost by being both, in our own little ways, “speakers” and “hearers.” The speakers would not have been able to do their part had they not gone out to preach in obedience to the Holy Spirit. The hearers would not have heard had they not left their homes and listened to the disciples set on fire with the Spirit’s gifts. The Pentecost day miracle, among other things, was a miracle of reciprocity, mutuality and cooperation. It was a miracle both on the part of the disciples and on the part of those who heard them speak. And the point of commonality was openness and receptivity to the same Spirit who was behind both activities. The Spirit was behind the ACTION of the apostles. The same Spirit was behind the PASSION, so to say, of the Jews who stood ready and open enough to listen to them.
I see here a further inspiration from the Lord for all of us: the call to become “preachers and teachers” ourselves – the call to follow the command of the Lord to “preach the gospel to all of creation and to teach them all that [he] has commanded.” I see here a call to young people most especially, to become what Christ was, to become what the apostles were, what we priests and religious are before the world: evangelizers and witnesses whose lives, in varying degrees of intensity, are GIVEN to the service of the Lord and His Kingdom. I see here, finally, a reminder to young people from St. Paul who eventually turned from being a persecutor of the Church to being an apostle to the gentiles gently admonishing us: “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Romans 10:14)
Pentecost Sunday is the birthday of the Church. That was when the Church was manifested to peoples of all races and nations. Here’s hoping it would also once again be the birthday of so many vocations who stand ready to commit themselves and not merely acknowledge the gifts they have received and their wonderful giftedness, but also their givenness to the call of the Spirit who “guides us to all truth.”