Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Vigil of Pentecost, May 23, 2015

Before the first reading, if from Genesis:

An ancient story tries to explain a puzzling human phenomenon. But it adds theological nuance, reminding humans that we don't share all the privileges of God.

Before the first reading, if from Exodus:

An ancient story of a theophany, a terrifying appearance of God upon earth, is linked with a tender invitation to be God's special people, a kingdom entirely of priests, a truly holy nation.

Before the first reading, if from Ezekiel:

For a despairing, exiled people, a startling, graphic image tells of the power of the spirit of God to revive them.

Before the first reading, if from Joel:

The prophet Joel, dismayed by the oppression of his people, foresaw a terrible Day of the Lord, when the unfaithful, especially Judah's enemies, would be destroyed. The faithful will be filled with God's spirit, and be rescued.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

Paul assesses the great change in humanity that God has begun to work in Christ. So great is God's project, that all creation, not just people, are to be changed. It is an ongoing struggle, to which the Spirit of God bears steady witness.

Before the gospel acclamation:

In a desert country, water is the most precious commodity. Jesus uses water as an image of the refreshment that his Spirit will grant to those who give their hearts to him.

Note: Alternate first readings include Exodus 19:3-8a, 16-20b; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Joel 3:1-5. Check with your liturgy commission.

In 2015, all these readings are listed consecutively here, in the NAB translation, and here in the Jerusalem Bible translation (above the Sunday readings). Blessed are those in a parish where this choice concerns the preacher. Detailed Notes about the alternate readings may appear soon.

First Reading, Genesis 11:1-9

The Theological Background (possibly): There are a number of ways, of course, to interpret this ancient fable. The one I favor emphasizes the temerity of the people and the outraged response of God. They say, "Let us make a name for ourselves," and God grumbles that "nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do."

This interpretation links chapter 11 of Genesis with chapter 3, the story of the fall. There the bold couple fell for the serpent's offer, "become like gods, deciding what is good and what is evil," and the one real God could only respond by scattering them out of Eden.

Proclaiming It: If you accept this interpretation of Genesis 11, then use your voice to bring out the audacious nature of the tower plan. Make God's response sound emphatic and determined. You're describing an epic argument here. Make it sound like one.

In both the New American Bible, translation, commonly used in American Catholic churches, and the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible used in most U.S. Protestant churches, the ambitious builders use bitumen for mortar. How are you going to pronounce "bitumen?" It's bih TYOO mn. To hear it on your computer, click here, or open this page, click the B, then click on the word Bitumen.

Our Liturgical Setting: The purpose of using this reading today is to set the stage for God to undo the confusion of human languages. By the Pentecost miracle, people of many languages simultaneously hear one gospel, and the church is set on its mission to unite humankind again under one God.

Second Reading, Romans 8:22-27

The Theological Context: Paul is realistic about how difficult it is to maintain Christian hope and faith in a hostile world. Perhaps to give us company in this struggle, he says that all of creation, not just ourselves, is longing for some kind of transformation. Here are the preceding verses:

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.

I suspect this is not a premise in Paul's logic, but a conclusion made necessary by Paul's vision of the greatness of what God has wrought in Christ. In other words, God's present and future transformation of us is so astounding that it can only be happening in the context of a universal transformation of nature as well as of humankind. So, in solidarity with nature, we groan about the unfinished condition we are in. But we have hope, given by the Spirit, of complete redemption.

Proclaiming It: Before you read Paul's switch from the groaning paragraph to the further discussion of hope, pause.

When you then say, "For in hope we were saved," sound like you're giving a solution to the problem you just described.

"Now hope that sees is not hope." What kind of hope is not hope? Hope that sees (Or, as the RSV translates it, "Now hope that is seen is not hope.") As lector, use your inflection to ensure that you identify this particular bogus hope. Don't make it sound like the simple contradiction, "Hope is not hope."

Pause again where Paul begins the discussion of the Spirit's help in our praying.


Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

In the past, only the Sunday liturgy site at Saint Louis University had anything to say about the vigil readings, but even that is gone.

Credit for the picture at the top:
In this 1912 painting by David Bomberg, referring to the alternate second reading tonight from Ezekiel, sinews and flesh, then skin, then spirit come upon dry bones.

The painting is owned by the Tate Gallery in London, though not on display in May, 2015. The Tate's website says, "Bomberg was closely associated with the Vorticist group in London. His ability to organise forms into powerful compositions is evident in this painting which was carefully prepared in several preliminary drawings. The subject is taken from the Old Testament and illustrates the occasion when God guided the prophet to a valley full of bones and commanded him to speak. 'There was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together.' Skeletal yet animated the figures appear to emerge from the platform. The brilliant colours emphasise the exultation associated with resurrection. Bomberg may have chosen this text after the sudden death of his mother. The pair had been close and he may have found consolation in this positive theme."

Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.

This page updated May 16, 2015