On the day of Pentecost, when the seven weeks of Easter had come to an end, Christ's Passover was fulfilled in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, manifested, given and communicated as a divine person. Tomorrow we celebrate that day in Pentecost Sunday - the feast of the founding of the Christian Church. The Advocate promised by Christ enters the believing community to guide and protect it until the second coming.
Apart from being a very beautiful feast, the day of Pentecost is a celebration of God's hand guiding the Christian community through the trials and decisions that are presented to it. If we look back at the daily scripture readings for the past seven weeks, we see a community struggling to come up with answers to the problems it faced: who should be admitted to the believing community? Should we obey the purity and food laws of the Torah? What roles, rights and duties should Church officials exercise? These were problems that vexed the early community and the descendants of the problems still vex contemporary Christians.
The readings of Eastertide gave testament to a community struggling to organise itself in the best possible and most inclusive way. It was only with the belief that its members were acting with some guidance and grace from God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, that the early Church had the confidence to make the necessary decisions to develop itself.
From that first Pentecost until now, it has always been the belief of the Church that the Holy Spirit directs and guides us collectively and individually. God is not a distant being and the ascended Jesus has not abandoned us. We have the Spirit of God living and working in our lives and in our Church. This is a magnificent idea. It is sad that the beauty of the idea is not clearly reflected in our contemporary beliefs and attitudes.
The problems experienced by the early communities are as real today as they were to the apostles and disciples who knew Christ. There was a bitter division in the early Church about who should be allowed to join the community. Some proposed an opendoor policy and some looked for ways to exclude. This is reflected in the way we treat our immigrants in Ireland and in other Christian countries.
Like those who objected to the admission of the Gentiles, we have our negative terms for those we wish to exclude. We call every non-Western person who arrives at our shores seeking to be part of our society an asylum-seeker. This is a great term because we can easily attach adjectives such as "bogus" to it. If reporters and journalists used terms such as immigrant or gastarbeiter could we not all start from a more positive point with these people? We use exclusive terms to debar people from participating in our community and show signs of herd instinct rather than collective wisdom in this action. Should a Christian society not be more open to the promptings of the Spirit? Could we not welcome immigrants as temporary workers in much the same way as the early Church received catechumens, and then decide on their permanent status later? I certainly cannot see the promptings of the Spirit at this level.
The early Church also faced the questions of the community's morality. Should we have any purity laws as a society? In the wake of the Church scandals of the past decade, has Christian morality been totally debunked? As we watch the politicisation of the question of the gift of life, the rise in social apathy and the increasing moral famine that we are enduring, we should ask ourselves: has the Spirit of God abandoned us to a standards-free life? As a society we need to seek some common values again. The "love thy neighbour" command that was intrinsic to Christianity has much in its favour, and the Spirit of God can still guide us here.
The Church at Pentecost tried to structure itself as a caring and just community. Daily we read of the abuses of privilege and the shirking of duties by our leaders. Politicians are hauled before investigative tribunals, local and Church activists are weighed up and found wanting. The private lives of famous people are rudely paraded in glossy magazines. We hear so much negativity that most of it doesn't even register as a shock any more. We are probably immune to low standards because we have generally abandoned our own. Has the Spirit anything positive to offer us as a relief from all this?
Fortified and encouraged by the belief that the Spirit guides us, the Church from its very beginnings has met regularly to evaluate its attitudes and teachings. Ireland could do the same and certainly needs to do something soon. Pentecost may be a feast with its roots in the past, but the confidence it gives to face our problems is perennial.