Saturday, May 22, 2010

05-23-2010: Pentecost

Pentecost
Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11 / Psalm 104 / 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13 / John 20:19-23
A few years back a woman needed a kidney transplant. In testing her sons as prospective donors, researchers discovered that the woman seemed genetically unrelated to either of her sons. It was eventually determined that the woman was a human “chimera,” possessing two different strands of DNA. Researchers concluded that the woman, while in utero, had absorbed into her body, the body of her dead fraternal twin.

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists are currently debating how humans and Neanderthals might have related. Did they interbreed? Did Neanderthals possess language capacity?

Back in the 1950s Jean Bruller, under the pseudonym of Vercors, wrote a little known novel You Shall Know Them about the offspring of a human being and a monkey, an intriguing way of exploring what it means to be human. “All men’s troubles arise,” Vercors wrote, “from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.”

Pentecost is about many things. It’s about big things: like providing the legend to explain the phenomenal growth of an obscure Jewish sect into a religion which today claims more than a billion adherents. And it’s about small things: like breath. Breath, so subtle a thing, that it’s at one and the same time absolutely essential for human life yet continually being taken for granted by all of us until something threatens to take it away. Breath, in its pushing out and sucking in, is also the fuel that propels human sound which, when passed through larynx and palate and tongue and teeth, forms a most remarkable thing – human speech expressed in a particular language. The story of Pentecost is bound up with human speech, its origin and its immense diversity through time and space. Which is to say that Pentecost is about one of the greatest of human endeavors: making yourself understood and, even more importantly, understanding yourself.

I once knew someone, advanced in years and, though highly intelligent, had received little education. When confronted with the necessity of receiving a blood donation because of her medical condition, she was genuinely intrigued, and not a little worried that, with the donated blood, she would also inherit the attributes of the donor. She wondered out loud, half-jokingly, if her skin would change color because of her donor’s race or if she would be physically stronger if her donor was male.

Perhaps human nature can be understood in the way we now view race – more as social construct than a biological one. Biologists insist we humans possess an animal nature; theologians claim we are made to receive a divine one, fitting like hand-in-glove, mirroring the mystery of Jesus’ unique identity as both human and divine. In the old days liturgists would spend a lot of time arguing about the proper mixture of water and wine the priest placed in the chalice at Mass, because it would represent the mixture of the divine and human in Christ - as if anyone could really know.

Pentecost, with its admixture of elements, admits us into that discussion about animal, human and divine natures. If language represents our capacity to make ourselves understood and, in turn, understand ourselves, then the gifts of the Spirit can lead us to better express who and what we are as human beings. Remember, though, that the Spirit chose to come to the apostles as a dove: God, as it were, using animal nature to convey a divine reality - perhaps because our human nature is so bound up with the animal world. What Pentecost reveals is that we human beings aren’t just the sum of our parts, that there’s an essential but ineffable reality we are drawn to – call it the divine. But it comes to us through our relationship to the animal kingdom and reminds us how essential that relationship remains in our pursuit of self awareness. An awareness that reveals what we are and what we would want to be.

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