Freedom from fear17 May 2021
This year Pentecost Sunday is celebrated in the Catholic Church on the day before the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians. Both feasts recall events that freed Christians from fear. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples in a room where they feared that they would be killed as Jesus had been. They went out to preach openly to people in the streets that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Following the example of an earlier Pope who had made Our Lady of the Rosary a patron for the forces fighting successfully against the Muslim navy at the Battle of Lepanto, Pope Pius VII instituted the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians after he had been exiled from Rome by Napoleon and freed by Napoleon’s later defeat. For both Popes, Mary was associated with supporting them during their fear for the lives of their people and for the Church.
The story of Pentecost highlights the change in the lives of Jesus’ disciples from timidity to courage. It also marks the making of the Christian community. When the disciples came out of isolation with confidence to preach the Gospel, their hearers joined them in believing that salvation had come to them through Jesus’ life, death and rising from the dead.
Pentecost speaks also of the vast scope of their mission. That people heard them speaking each in their own language showed that Christ’s word is not confined to one nation or language group but is given for the whole world. The Pentecost story reverses the story about the tower of Babel when people were divided after being made to speak different languages. At Pentecost they were united in hearing the same Gospel in their own language.
Pentecost is a feast of solidarity. We believe that the Spirit is given for the blessing of all human beings. It is given to the Church to commend Jesus’ way through following his path through life to death. In the early Church the power of the Spirit was recognised above all in the faith of the martyrs who overcame their fears by following in Jesus’ footsteps.
In Catholic life Mary is recognised as the person who best reflected Jesus’ way. As his mother she understood him best. In his Gospel, Luke describes her reflecting on what Jesus had done, and keeping it in her heart. She stood by his cross, staying with him in his suffering and in the face of the terror of his killers and the apparent defeat of all that he had stood for. She is a natural companion for Christians in our times of fear and defeat.
That story of hope against all hope is interwoven there with the other stories of women of our time who have been leaders in public life, fearless in their advocacy of justice for those crushed by society, as Jesus was. Both stories belong together.
To see Mary as queen of Christian armies and as patron of their battles, however, would take us away from the message of Pentecost. It enlists her to serve in our military causes and in our competition with other religious groups. It also turns her into a straightforward symbol of victory.
The way of Pentecost, however, is to gather people to follow Jesus in finding life and new energy in the victory that comes only through death and defeat. In that engagement Mary stands with people who are victims of battle, not with the generals on either side.
Image: Stained Glass window in the Cathedral of Bayeux, France, depicting Mother Mary and the Apostles at Pentecost