If you had to name one of the most quoted speeches of the 20th century, one near the top of any list would be the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy in 1961, with his call:
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Earlier in that same speech, he alerted the world that change was in the air, a generational shift, saying that the “torch had been passed to a new generation.” And he began with a grand declaration:
“Let the word go forth.”
On this particular Sunday, those five words could also sum up the meaning of this feast we celebrate, Pentecost.
Let The Word go forth.
For in the dramatic events of that first Pentecost, when the bewildered and excited disciples poured into the streets, they had one purpose in mind: to let The Word go forth.
And it did.
The Word went forth from Jerusalem to Judea, and on to Corinth and Ephesus and Rome and Africa and Spain and even, eventually, to America.
What began with a few frightened people in a darkened room in Jerusalem has spilled out and touched every corner of the globe. You’ll find The Word preached in every language – just as on that very first Pentecost – and understood in billions of hearts.
And it all began on this day we celebrate, Pentecost: the birthday of the Church.
We need, especially now, to keep The Word going— to remind ourselves of the rugged beginnings of this rugged faith and to carry it on, just as the first believers did.
We need, quite simply, to throw open the windows of our fear and uncertainty — to let in the light — and to let The Word go forth.
It is a daunting prospect. But we do not undertake it alone.
We have the Holy Spirit.
We have the Spirit to keep the embers burning with His seven-fold gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
We have the Spirit to uplift us when we are struggling…to strengthen us when we are weak…to console us when we are grieving…to comfort us when we are frightened.
Yes, it is a daunting prospect.
But we do not do this alone.
As we heard in John’s gospel: “The Spirit of truth…will guide you to all truth.” The Holy Spirit is our guide – and more than that, our model. Paul’s letter to the Galatians calls us to “live in the Spirit.” And he then reminds us what beautiful fruits that kind of living offers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
When you consider all that, you realize what living in the Spirit really means: it is, in fact, living in Christ – and by extension living not only in Christ, but in his Father.
The early Christians had a name for that – “The Way.”
This is our way.
You find it today in some surprising places. You find it lived out in a hospital in Baghdad, where a Catholic nun cares for a Muslim mother and her child in the aftermath of war.
You find it in New Mexico, where members of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi – inspired by the Sermon on the Mount – stage a sackcloth and ashes prayer vigil for peace at Los Alamos.
You find it in churches from Brooklyn to Budapest, where faithful men, women and children offer their prayers to God—asking for healing, or reconciliation, or peace.
You find it anywhere a Christian strives to hold the hand of someone who is hurting, bring comfort to someone who is lonely, or restore faith to someone who has lost it.
We keep the flame of Pentecost burning and follow “The Way” when our greatest ambition is simply to be like Christ.
Or, to rewrite that most famous phrase from President Kennedy: we do it when we ask not what God can do for us, but what we can do for God.
Two thousand years ago, men and women who had followed Jesus asked themselves that question on the first Pentecost. And we are the beneficiaries of their answer. All of us who gather to pray and remember and rejoice on this Pentecost are heirs of that first Pentecost. Those first Christians cleared the path, and often died trying, so that we could walk in their footsteps —walk The Way—today.
So today, dare to ask the question: Where will those footsteps take us?
Who will be the beneficiaries of our choices?
Who will carry the flame, the torch of faith, as it is passed?
It is up to each of us.
This Pentecost, let us ask the Spirit to touch all of our hearts, as He touched the hearts of the disciples on the first Pentecost. Let the fire burn over you, so the flame can spread.
There’s a famous saying from St. Catherine of Siena: “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.”
This Pentecost, go shead. Strike a match. Set the world ablaze.
And let The Word go forth.