Vigil of Pentecost, Saturday, May 22, 2021
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.
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.
For a despairing, exiled people, a startling, graphic image tells of the power of the spirit of God to revive them.
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.
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.
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.
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. To hear "bitumen" pronounced, click the wedge:
That audio clip comes from The Bible Workshop.
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.
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:
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.
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 view of the possible (default, really) first reading from Genesis 11, I use this picture as a wry comment on a Tower-of-Babel-like experiment undertaken in my home town during my youth. These are the Pruitt-Igoe apartments, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A., 1955-1972. Click here for the wikipedia article on the project
This page updated April 3, 2021