May 30, 2020: Pentecost Vigil (ABC)

Introduction

The word “vigil” comes from the Latin word vigilia, which means “a watching” or “keeping watch.” In the language of the Church, this term is used to designate the day falling before a prominent feast or solemnity, a day set apart by the Church as a preparation for the greater day that follows it.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the faithful customarily gathered in or near a church on the evening preceding great feasts, there giving themselves to prayer in honor of the mystery or saint who would be venerated on such feasts. The observance of a fast for the entire day before these feasts became part of the discipline of Christianity.

The Greek word Pentecost means “fiftieth day.” Fifty days after Easter Sunday, we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and their followers, and the beginning of their earthly ministry to make disciples of all nations.

The descent of the Holy Spirit ushered in a new era for the people of God; as such, Pentecost also celebrates the birth of our Church.  From that point on, the apostles carried the message of Christ to the whole world.

In addition to honoring the coming of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost is the festival celebration of our New Covenant with God; it’s also the last Sunday of Easter.

1st Reading – Genesis 11:1-9

The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words.
While the people were migrating in the east,
they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.
They said to one another,
“Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.”
They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city
and a tower with its top in the sky,
and so make a name for ourselves;
otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower
that the people had built.
Then the LORD said: “If now, while they are one people,
all speaking the same language,
they have started to do this,
nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.
Let us then go down there and confuse their language,
so that one will not understand what another says.”
Thus the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth,
and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel,
because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world.
It was from that place that he scattered them all over the earth.

The well-known story of the Tower of Babel, based on traditions about the temple towers or ziggurats of Babylonia, is used to illustrate man’s increasing wickedness, shown in his presumptuous effort to create an urban culture apart from God.

This reading takes place after the great flood. Noah’s sons have gone their separate ways to settle the world: Japheth, the Indo-Europeans; Ham, the Egyptians and Africans; and Shem, the Arabs and Jews (Shemites, aka Semites).

The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words. While men were migrating in the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.

The people referenced here are Hamites: Genesis 10:10 tells us that the sons of Ham settled in Shinar.

Shinar is ancient Sumer in southern Mesopotamia; it appears later in scripture as Chaldea, or the land of the Chaldeans.

They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

The area does not naturally yield stone or mortar, so they create bricks and use sticky, black pitch to bond them together.  They are resolute in their designs to rebel.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky,

Temple designations in Mesopotamia contain phrases like “reaching the heavens.”  Babylonian ziggurats were the earliest skyscrapers.

and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

The people of Shinar seek to build a tower with its top in the heavens to “make a name for themselves,” repeating the pattern begun in the Garden of Eden: man’s attempt to achieve divine power and status on his own — to “be like God but without God” (CCC 398).

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men had built.

This is likely intended as irony. The people have built what they consider a tremendous monument, but it is so puny by God’s standards that he can barely make it out. He must come down to see it.

Then the LORD said: “If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.

It is not that God is powerless, but he has given humankind the gift of free will. If they don’t see the result of their disobedience against divine intent now, they will never learn.

Let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says.” Thus the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Since they are so prideful of what they can do together, God destroys their unity. He halts their sinful ambition by confusing their languages.

That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world. 

Babylon is the Greek form of the native name Bib-ili, which means “gate of the gods.” Babel is the Hebrew form of the name, which sounds similar to the Hebrew verb balil, which means “he confused.”

This is likely meant by the Hebrew author as sharp humor; a mockery of Babylon and its claims to be so mighty over other peoples.

It was from that place that he scattered them all over the earth.

Note how merciful God’s resolution to this rebellion is. He does not punish them in proportion to their sin of rebellion, he simply confuses their language and scatters them across the earth — an outcome that echoes his original directive to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28).  Essentially, he sets them back on the path he intended.

As we will see in the first reading of tomorrow’s celebration, many commentators believe that this scattering of people and confusing of languages was reversed at Pentecost, when people from all over the world, through the power of the Holy Spirit, were each able to understand the apostles in their own language (Acts 2:1-11).

2nd Reading – Romans 8:22-27

Brothers and sisters:
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that sees is not hope.
For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will. 

Our second reading points to the future glory that is to come through the help of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant.

Brothers and sisters: We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;

Greek philosophers often compared the spring rebirth of nature to a woman’s travail of childbirth. It groans in hope and expectation, but also in pain.

and not only that, but we ourselves,

Not only material creation bears testimony to the Christian destiny, but Christians themselves do so by the hope that they have, a hope based on the gift of the spirit already possessed.

who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,

The Spirit is compared with the first fruits of the harvest, which, when offered to God (Leviticus 23:15-21) represented the consecration of the whole harvest.

we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Firstfruits serve as a pledge or deposit that guarantees that there is more to come. With the firstfruits of the Spirit, the Christian looks forward to the full harvest of glory, the redemption of the body.

“The adoption as sons is the redemption of the whole body.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (ca. A.D. 380), Letter to Priests 52]

For in hope we were saved.

The past aspect of salvation already accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

Hope enables the Christian to bear with the sufferings of the present, and it also makes him a witness to the world of a lively faith in the resurrection.

In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness;

The reference here is not merely to physical frailty but to the totality of the human condition.  Human beings are weak, limited, prone to ignorance and making mistakes.

for we do not know how to pray as we ought,

This can mean that either we do not know how to engage in the practice of prayer or that we do not know for what they should pray.  Still, such weakness need not prevent them from accomplishing great things.

but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.

Human aspirations risk being ineffective because of the natural weakness of the flesh, but the Spirit of God adds its intercession, and because it knows the will of God, it transcends our weakness, groaning with sighs too deep for words.

The result is that the Christian utters what would otherwise be impossible: to pray “Abba, Father.”

“It is not possible, says Paul, for us human beings to have a precise knowledge of everything. So we ought to yield to the Creator of our nature and with joy and great relish accept those things which He has decided on and have an eye not to the appearance of events but to the decisions of the Lord. After all, He knows better than we do what is for our benefit, and He also knows what steps must be taken for our salvation.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 388), Homilies on Genesis, Second Series 30,16]

And the one who searches hearts

An Old Testament phrase for God (1 Samuel 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 7:11; 17:3; 139:1).

knows what is the intention of the Spirit,

Only God Himself comprehends the language and the mind of the Spirit and recognizes such Spirit-assisted prayer.

because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.

Believers pray to God and seek to do God’s will, but human limitation clouds their eyes and obstructs their view. The Spirit of God takes hold of them and empowers them to pray and to do God’s will. However, it is really the Spirit within them that enables them to act in this way. God has a purpose, and though we do not know what the purpose is, the enabling spirit of God moves us toward it.

Note that Paul refers to these prayerful weak human beings as holy ones, or saints. Such a reference itself reveals something about his understanding of holiness; specifically, that weakness is not an obstacle to it.

“It is clear that the prayer of every spirit is known to God, from whom nothing is secret or hidden (see Job 37:16; Acts 15:18; 1 John 3:20) How much more then should [the Father] know what the Holy Spirit, who is the same essence as Himself, is saying?” [The Ambrosiaster (ca. A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

Gospel – John 7:37-39

On the last and greatest day of the feast,
Jesus stood up and exclaimed,
“Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.
As Scripture says:
Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.

He said this in reference to the Spirit
that those who came to believe in him were to receive.
There was, of course, no Spirit yet,
because Jesus had not yet been glorified.

Our gospel reading takes place in Jerusalem where Jesus has gone to partake in the feast of Tabernacles. The time is about six months prior to his passion, death, and resurrection.

On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed,

The final day of the Feast of Tabernacles included a holy convocation, as instructed in Leviticus 23:36. Jesus gives this message when there is a large number of people to hear it, and as the last point they will hear before departing to their homes.

The fact that John describes him as exclaiming this message indicates urgency and earnestness.

“Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.

His message is open to all: anyone who thirsts.

Whoever believes in me, as scripture says: ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.’” He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.

This is not an exact quotation from any Old Testament passage.  In the gospel context, the gift of the Spirit is meant (see John 3:5).

The Hebrew language referred to running water as “living” because of its motion.  It is unclear if the water is flowing from Jesus or the believer; if Jesus, it continues the Jesus-Moses parallels found throughout John’s gospel (water from the rock, Exodus 17:6, Numbers 20:11) as well as the image of Jesus as the new temple (Ezekiel 47:1). Grammatically, it goes better with the believer.

There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.

Codex Vaticanus and early Latin, Syriac, and Coptic versions of the gospel state “no Spirit yet given.”  In John’s gospel, the sending of the Spirit cannot take place until after Jesus’ glorification through his death, resurrection, and ascension (John 20:22).

Tonight, at the vigil of the Pentecost, we are on the verge of this glorious event.  We wait with anticipation.

Connections and Themes

Pentecost.  The Christian community has been living in a peculiar “in-between” time since the ascension of the Lord. Tonight we wait for the dramatic inbreaking of the time of fulfillment.  Pentecost celebrates the fullness of the Spirit and the great gathering together of nations; it also brings the Easter season to its conclusion.  The readings for this evening emphasize our anticipation for tomorrow.  At Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit will arrive and the living water Jesus promised will begin to flow.  The consequences of confused language will be undone, and all will hear the apostles speaking in their own tongue.  All will be brought together as we are brought together into the body of Christ.

But tonight, we wait, remaining awake and on watch, filled with expectant prayer for the gifts that God will give so that we can unleash the Gospel. Tonight, we “hope for what we do not see,” and “we wait with endurance.”

Rivers of living water.  The Holy Spirit is not only given to us, but in the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit flows out from us. It is as if each of us, through baptism, became the water in which we were baptized. Not only are our hearts purified, but we become the means, the agent of purifying our world of sin. In a sense, we become contagious with the Holy Spirit. These rivers will, as the psalm says, renew the face of the earth!