On Pentecost we celebrate one of three great Jewish feasts which, at the time of Jesus, every Jewish person within twenty miles of Jerusalem was legally bound to celebrate. Those three great feasts were the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Passover, and the Feast of Weeks.
Of course, it is us Christians who substituted the Feast of Weeks with Pentecost which means “The Fiftieth.” Because there are seven days per week and seven weeks passed, seven times seven is forty-nine so the Jews celebrated the completion of seven weeks after Passover.
Normally, Passover fell in the middle of April like it did this year. This meant that the Feast of Weeks would fall at the beginning of June which was the best time of the year to travel to Jerusalem. The weather would not be too hot and the roads would be dry and in good shape. This is the reason why there were people who spoke different languages present in Jerusalem on the First Pentecost.
What really happened at the first Pentecost that we heard about in today’s readings is not known except that the disciples had an experience of the Holy Spirit which led them to imagine what they ought to do. With the help of the scriptures, we can imagine what that experience was like. So perhaps what is important for us to celebrate this Pentecost is the Holy Spirit’s gift of imagination.
Imagination is something possessed only by human beings. The Twentieth century Marxist Philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote that, “Human beings are human beings because of their ability to dream of a better future and to strive to achieve it.” No other living being has imagination except maybe God. Surely, God had to have imagination to create the world, its minerals, and all its living organisms.
Imagination is what allows us to drift back into the past to remember our social or personal histories, to relive important moments, to re-experience previous joys and sorrows. With imagination the past can be brought into the present and shaped according to our current needs and interests to meet the demands of our future.
During a summer day when we think it is too hot and humid outside, we can imagine ourselves back in a January snowstorm. Or at the age of sixty-seven when our arthritis is acting up we can again dance in the moonlight with a person we love. Or in our imagination we men can finally stand up to the bully who kicked sand in our face when we were trying to impress a girl at the beach. Or we can recall the moments spent with a person we loved with all our heart but who has died.
With imagination we can interpret our world. We can begin to pursue the truth, to come to an understanding of why a war is taking place, why people are starving, or why people are dying of Ebola. We can determine why, at times, we are willing to reach out in sympathy and why, at other times, we retreat in disgust. Imagination helps us to find creative solutions to problems. How many of you who cook have been preparing a meal and find out that you are missing an ingredient and you make a substitution? It seems to me that great dishes, like great symphonies, have been created by the use of imagination.
The spiritual power of imagining can propel us into the future as we dream dreams, envision possibilities, set goals, and make plans. When a person says they will pray for us, there is an act of imagination. The person is imagining how God will respond to our needs. Students use imagination time and time again when they hope that they will be successful in their studies, in preparing for a career, in finding a fulfilling job position, in meeting the right partner. Parents use imagination when they decorate a nursery for an unborn child. “Should the wall paper be blue or pink?” We all use our imaginations when we contemplate dying. “What will it be like to die? What’s heaven like? Is there a hell?”
In his book The Religious Imagination, Andrew Greeley points out that our imagination is shaped by the pictures and images which are stored up as a result of our personal experiences and our encounter with the symbols and stories of our religious tradition. His research suggests that Catholics who have warm and positive images of God, Christ, the Holy Spirit and the afterlife are more likely to be living happy family lives, participating in the life of the Church, and working on behalf of peace. This reminds us not only of the importance of our imagination and how it is shaped but from where our imagination comes from.
What really happened at the first Pentecost is not really known except that the disciples had an experience of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps our ability to imagine is one way that the Spirit of God comes to us. The Spirit opens up layers of experience hidden from our rational and linear thinking to connect us with the supernatural world and the divine God we wonder about.
Do we believe that our imagination is the Holy Spirit directing and guiding us towards the good things of this life and the next? If we don’t, what do we imagine the Spirit to be?
Fr. Bob Kelly