Saturday, June 03, 2017

Gathered, Scattered, United


Pentecost Vigil

Picture: cc Inbal & Nir

My dear friends, I’ve been doing some travelling in the past few months. And, as a result, I’ve come to realise that however far you go, no matter how remote your destination, you can always find one thing. Do you know what it is? Some of you may be able to guess... It’s a McDonald’s.

I recently visited a small island, for example, where there are no cars, because the island doesn’t have proper roads. But what do you see the moment you step off the ferry? You guessed it. Right in front of the ferry terminal, the unmistakable golden arches of a McDonald’s restaurant.

But that’s not all. Not only can you find a McDonald’s anywhere you go, but even though all these restaurants are scattered, it seems, in every nook and cranny of the known world, separated from one another by great distances, they all still appear to be united in some way, don’t they? They all bear the same name. They share the same brand. They belong to the same franchise. They speak the same language. The language of fast food and even faster profits.

It is possible, in other words, to be scattered across great distances, and still be united in some way. This is a truth that perhaps McDonald’s can teach us. And, strange as it may seem, it is in some ways similar to the truth that our readings are inviting us to ponder today.

We see this especially in our first reading, which ends with people being scattered. But the scattering is not the real problem. For scholars tell us that it was actually God’s intention, God’s explicit instruction to the people, to multiply and to scatter themselves across the face of the earth. To go to the respective places to which God had assigned them. To fill the earth and to subdue it. This was God’s plan for them. But the people defy God. They disobey. Instead of scattering about, they choose to settle down. Instead of serving God’s will, they focus on their own selfish interests. Let us build ourselves a town, they say. Let us make a name for ourselves, so that we may not be scattered about the whole earth

But, much as the people want to gather together in one place, their narrow concern for their own selfish interests causes their company to disintegrate. They begin to speak different languages. And, like married couples, who gradually stop communicating, they eventually find themselves splitting up. They experience the very thing they had been resisting at first. They are scattered across the face of the earth. Except that there is one important difference between the scattering at the end of the reading and what God had in mind for them at the beginning. Do you know what this difference is?

What God had in mind for them was a scattering-in-unity. A dispersal of people belonging to the same God-given franchise, as it were. Working on the same God-given project. Speaking the same God-given language. Not the language of fast food and faster profits. But the language of selfless love. The language of a love so strong that it is willing even to lay down its own life to benefit others. To sacrifice itself for the salvation of the world.

This is what God intended. But what the people end up experiencing is instead a dispersal not in unity but in division. The disintegration of those who care only for themselves. A scattering of selfish competitors, instead of the spreading out of loving friends. So that what is lost in the first reading is actually connection. Unity. That true connection that is able to survive even when people are scattered. That authentic unity that comes from God alone.

And isn’t this the same thing for which the second reading tells us the whole of creation is groaning? And not just creation, but we ourselves are groaning for it. We ourselves desire this unity. This connection. Something we would realise, if only we took the time to pay closer attention to our own hearts. We are all yearning for this unity that has been lost. This harmony, born of love, that is God’s gift to us. God’s plan for us. This deep bond that gives those who experience it the ability to maintain long-distance relationships. To be out of sight and yet not out of mind. To be separated even by death, and still feel bound by the unbreakable bonds of love. 

This is what Jesus offers in the gospel, when he calls all those who are thirsty to come to him and drink. This is the living water that he promises to all who respond to his call. All those who truly come to him. Truly follow him. Truly surrender their hearts and their lives to him. This is what the Spirit brings to those whose hearts are open enough to receive it. To those who recognise their own deep longing for connection. For unity. For peace and harmony. This is what we celebrate at Pentecost. The power to remain united, even when we may be separated by time and space… By trial and tribulation… By suffering and death…

And isn’t this a power that our world needs so very much today? Torn as it is by conflict and division. By violence and strife. Where everyone seems so very close on social media, and yet so very far in real life. Where a McDonald’s can be found everywhere, but tolerance and understanding, mercy and compassion, seem to be in such short supply. A world where the only language people seem to care to speak is that of speed. And of greed. Of fast food and faster profits. A false language that ends up splitting people up. Whereas a true language should really gather us in.

Isn’t this why we celebrate Pentecost? The feast of the coming of the Spirit. God’s Gift of unity and harmony. Of love and joy and peace. A Gift that we need first to receive for ourselves, as we gather here at this Mass. Allowing the Spirit to express our plea in a way that could never be put into words. And, having received this Gift, to then allow ourselves to be sent out. To be scattered about. To speak this language of love to a waiting world.

My dear friends, thankfully McDonald’s is not the only thing that can be found everywhere we go. The Spirit can be found too. The question is, of course, which of them are we really seeking? On which of them are we really feeding today?

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