Once again, a word of welcome to you and especially to our guests, here for the jazz mass and special music we are offering today. It is, indeed, through the arts, that we communicate the movements of the Holy Spirit in a universal language that transcends the boundaries of religion, culture, and society. So, we could hardly find a more perfect occasion for our jazz mass, as today is traditionally the Sunday on which the church particularly focuses on its conceptualization of the Holy Spirit - the feast of Pentecost.
Pentecost is a Greek name related to the number 50; both for the Chrsitian observance and for the ancient Jewish agricultural feast Shavuot that celebrates the first fruits of the harvest and liberation from slavery in Egypt, both falling 50 days after Easter and Passover, respectively. This year, they fall on the same weekend because Passover and Easter did as well. The reason we mark a Christian observance with the word related to a Jewish one is that the first followers of Christ were Jewish, and the occasion on which they are said to have received a very special manifestation of the Spirit of God was also when they gathered to celebrate this feast. In Chrsitian interpretation, the coincidence isn’t random, as the feast intended as the thanksgiving for and dedication of the harvest. As such, this first time that the closest followers of Christ had a shared experience of the Spirit (as a fire, wind, and total comprehension) is considered to be the first outcome of their relationship with Jesus. This experience is both foundational to the Church, and what continued to keep us together through the centuries. This contrasts with the first story we read, about the tower of Babel – in fact, a Near-Eastern myth shared by many cultures, in which a god inflicts an impediment on people’s ability to communicate, so as to prevent them from reaching him. What we celebrate here today is that, by God’s desire, the Holy Spirit has always enabled us to communicate, comprehend, forgive, and be together despite our diversity – as long as it is for the sake of all that is good and for drawing closer to God for the sake of love, and not out of the pursuit of power, control, greed, and other evil purposes. Despite what the legend of Babel shows, all the chaos, misunderstanding, and our lack of communion with God in this world is our own doing, not God’s. The Spirit is with us – in us! - to help overcome it.
Jesus said to his followers shortly before his own life came to a tragic and untimely end, “[God will] give you another Advocate, to be with you forever… the Spirit of truth [who] will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you [which] I do not give to you as the world gives.” Who is this Spirit? Many have tried to imagine her in writing, painting, music, personal prayer and devotion – often, in female form. Nobody has yet understood God fully, of course; at least not in this life. But, what we CAN see is her manifestations: yes, reconciliation, unity and understanding; yes, creativity, participation in and appreciation of arts. And, peace, conscience, determination to overcome evil with good... Jesus said he left his followers with peace, while he went on to undergo great suffering. Today, we also grieve, individually and corporately. In most parts of the world, there is no peace in the sense of lack of strife between nations, cultures, identities, and ideologies. That’s why Jesus said that the kind of peace he gives us - the first fruits of a relationship with God - is NOT like what the world expects, or is capable of giving.
As we grieve over this broken world, and what happens to us, our loved ones, and innocent people, the Spirit is our advocate and comforter. But, another anonymous author (Ephisians 4) urges that we, in turn, “do not grieve the Holy Spirit” and, “live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love... keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace… speaking the truth in love. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger… along with every form of malice.” Refrain from bitterness, yet, with the guidance of the Spirit, speak the truth in love.
That’s “all” we can do, really, to oppose evil and achieve a measure of peace. An example from the arts comes to mind, in the life of Picasso. He produced MANY doves – a Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit, which, thanks to Picasso and his wartime paintings, also became the symbol of peace. (He also named his daughter Paloma). Quite appropriately so, in light of Jesus saying that God’s peace comes via the Spirit. Picasso worked through both of the major wars in Europe, civil war in Spain, and Nazi occupation of France. One day, a German soldier talked to him about the iconic painting that Picasso produced in response to the bombing of a village in Spain (Guernica, 1937), which was like the bombing of many cites in Ukraine today, in that neither had any military value. The soldier asked, referring to the photo, “did you do this?”. Picasso said, “no, you did”. And on another occasion, he said, “I have not painted the war… but I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings.”
Similarly, let us also never give evil an emotional hold in our hearts and minds; yet, let our response, grief, and disapproval be present – truthfully! – in our words, lives, creations, interactions, prayers, thoughts, ministry, and work: those are all the tools of the Spirit. And may we advance the peace of God not only through our truthfulness, but also in offering forgiveness, and pursuing mutual understanding. These are difficult to balance. Yet, much of God’s peace on earth rests in the integrity of the human heart. As long as we try to see others as no less human than us, then we become free to grow, be content, and become most authentically, unapologetically, ourselves. Thanks be to God.