First Reading: Acts 2:1-11
Sometimes you know what to expect. Maybe you know you’ll get the job before the interview because you have an inside connection. Or you know what your mom will get you for Christmas, because you get a box of socks every Christmas. But the unpredictable, the unexpected, is harder to anticipate. You don’t know what you don’t know. On the morning of Pentecost, the disciples were in this spot, the place of not knowing what to expected and yet expecting all the same.
Moping Over Jesus
Jesus had promised that he would send his Holy Spirit upon them after he ascended. He told them, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Act 1:8 RSV). Yet I can’t imagine they really understood what that meant. The disappointment of watching your best friend, let alone the Savior of the World, float off into Heaven could not have worn off by this time. I bet the melancholic types among the apostles were still moping, wishing that things had turned out differently, maybe wanting to float off into Heaven themselves.
The Waiting Game
Yet Jesus told them to wait. They had to hurry up and sit tight. Times of waiting are annoying. Even if we know what to expect, the waiting game has its own inner problems. It means that we are in between “here” and “there,” that our life can’t really go on until we’ve gotten to this next point. We have to go through lots of waiting games—waiting to hear back on an application, waiting for the wedding day, waiting for a baby to arrive, waiting for retirement. The arrival of the “there” brings new opportunities, a new horizon, but we can’t bring it on faster than it will come. “All in God’s time…” we are told.
Finally, though, the Holy Spirit shows up. And who’s going to be disappointed now? He comes on the day of Pentecost. Now many people think that Pentecost is a Christian feast, but it actually began as a Jewish feast. Pentecost is also called the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. It was a celebration of the spring-time barley harvest, set in place by the Book of Leviticus (25:15-22). The holiday comes seven weeks or fifty days after Passover just like how Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter. Even though it is not mentioned this way in the Bible, early on Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.
Sinai and the Upper Room
If that’s the case, then compare what happens at Mt. Sinai to what happens at the Upper Room on Pentecost:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. (Exod 19:16 RSV)
And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. (Acts 2:2-3 RSV)
Ok, so the two texts are not identical. But you can see how both arrivals of God’s presence include “atmospheric” phenomena. When God shows up in power, he does not spare on special effects. He makes his presence known. In both cases, you get some sound, whether thunder, trumpets or wind. And in both cases, you have fire or lightening. The Holy Spirit provides a feast of God’s presence for the eyes and ears.
Old Covenant Glory Cloud
These “special effects” should also remind us of what happens when the Old Testament tabernacle and Temple are dedicated.
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting, because the cloud abode upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Exod 40:34-35 RSV)
And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. (1 Kgs 8:10-11 RSV)
In these Old Testament examples, God’s presence descends in a cloud on the place where he intends to “dwell.” In the New Testament, in the Book of Acts, God does not descend on a physical location so much as on a people. His glory does not come upon the Ark of the Covenant, but upon his followers.
The New Ark of the Covenant
In fact, there is an ancient iconographic tradition for Pentecost that plays on this theme. It shows the twelve apostles present and in the center, Mary. The fire of the Holy Spirit comes first on Mary, who is identified as the Ark of the New Covenant because she carries Jesus in her body (see also Rev 11:19). Then from her, the fire spreads to each of the apostles. This time, God chooses to dwell in a people rather than in a building. In fact, St. Paul picks up on this theme when he calls us “God’s temple” (1 Cor 3:16) and when he teaches that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (see 1 Cor 6:19). He even says, “you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:22 RSV). By virtue of the grace of Pentecost, we become not just followers or servants of the kingdom, but the very dwelling place of God. The Holy Spirit comes to live within us.
So what does all of this mean for us? I think it means that we can and should adjust our expectations. So much of the time, we look to God for quick fixes, encouragement, even therapy—as if he were a divine psychiatrist doling out the latest prescriptions. But he doesn’t just want to fix us, broken as we are—he wants to live in us! Maybe we should be like the disciples and expect the unexpected, allow God’s presence to invade our comfortable lives and inhabit us. Perhaps he wants to dwell in us first and only fix us after the fact. God loves to unravel our expectations and give us something better than we could have asked for. Let’s let him be unpredictable.