Rorate Caeli

The "curse" of Pentecost

If we pay close attention, we can see implicit signs of self-curse in the New Covenant oaths which we swear via the sacraments (sacramentum means "oath" in Latin) - for example, in Baptism there is the grace of new life, but it is accomplished via the symbolism of death and burial in the water. To forsake the grace of Baptism is to return to the waters of death from which we were raised up in the sacrament. Blessing and curse are both operative here.

It should not surprise us, then, if we see in the liturgy several "both-ward" pointing signs - the plea of the priest at the prayer before the Gospel explicitly evokes the mission of Isaiah, a mission which was guaranteed by God to end in the curse and condemnation of those who heard it; the action of the priest in kissing the altar stone recalls the symbolism of Christ as the "cornerstone" of the New Jerusalem, but it also recalls the prophecies of Isaiah and the Psalmist that those who rejected the cornerstone will soon be crushed by the weight of this stone.

This dual meaning is more-than evident in the Feast of Pentecost, although certainly the aspects of judgment and curse have rarely been noticed by those attending the liturgical worship. There is an urgency in this Feast that we would do well to feel and hear - and this urgency, this climactic moment of decision, is especially strong in the narratives that describe the Descent of the Holy Ghost.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

Many Old Testament images come to mind here, all of them related to a decisive moment that would result in either blessing or curse.

To return to the point of the liturgical year, this Gospel reading is set before us on the last Sunday of Pentecost because it does, under the "eschatological sense" of Scripture, speak to us of the end of time, when we will face the Divine Tribunal. The season of Pentecost symbolizes the duration of our time on this earth, and the duration of the Church's time on this earth. Thus, at the end of Pentecost season, which is symbolically either a) the end of our individual lives or b) the end of time itself, we are faced with a "last days" Gospel - a Gospel which, not coincidentally, deals on two levels with both the ultimate end of time, but also the end of the "Old Covenant Age" in 70 AD.

If St. Peter's Pentecost sermon effectively flips the hour-glass, so that the count-down begins and ultimately culminates in the literal/historical fulfillment of Jesus' words in Matthew 24, so also does the Feast of Pentecost which we celebrate on "Whitsunday" begin a kind of count-down towards the end of the liturgical year, symbolizing the end of our lives and the end of time. The aspect of impending judgment is no less present in our Pentecost celebration than it was at the First Pentecost.

If the Spirit was poured out in a special way then, to give Christians wisdom for interpreting "the signs of the times," and to fortify them against everything that would be thrown at them for the next 40 years until Jerusalem's judgment, then so also is the Holy Spirit given to us in a special way at this Feast, to give us wisdom in this increasingly "crooked generation" - from which St. Peter beckons us anew to "save yourselves" - and to give us fortitude against all attacks, whether spiritual or natural, as we march relentlessly onward towards that last Sunday of Pentecost, the end of time itself.