Pandemic, Protests & Pentecost

A Time for Prophetic Preaching
Protesters in Minneapolis gather at the scene May 27, 2020, where George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was pinned down by a police officer kneeling on his neck before later dying in hospital May 25. (CNS photo/Eric Miller, Reuters)

The Solemnity of Pentecost marks the end of the seven-week long celebration of Jesus’ victory over death. The liturgical readings of the Easter Season are intended to deepen the Church’s reflection on who Jesus is and his teachings in light of the Resurrection. The daily readings from the Acts of the Apostles prepare us for the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit by reflecting on her transformative power in the early Church. By the time we celebrate Pentecost, the Church’s spiritual questioning is not so much about our belief in Jesus as the Messiah, but the degree to which we commit to live out his teachings through the Holy Spirit. 

Los Angeles, like many other cities, has spent the entire Easter season indoors following stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis has accentuated the racial and economic inequalities rooted in our nation, and now, for the past three days, Los Angeles civilians have been protesting in response to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Although this devastating tragedy is deserving of anger and sorrow in and of itself, it is compounded by the deaths of all people from marginalized communities who have died in police custody, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the disregard for human life at the borders and in our prison system, and the loss of all those who, in this time of pandemic, have died because of systemic racial and economic injustices that have made them more vulnerable to exposure to the novel coronavirus. 

Those with metaphorical and literal pulpits have the responsibility to name the sin of racism.

The past three days of intended peaceful protest have led to confrontations with police authorities, looting, and arson. About five hundred people have been arrested in protests in Downtown Los Angeles on Friday night and continued protests in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills on Saturday. On the eve of Pentecost, following these events, a curfew was imposed on the entire city of Los Angeles.

In the midst of all this the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Pentecost. It triumphantly concludes weeks of joy in the Resurrection and looks to the Holy Spirit in hopes that she will renew the face of the Earth. 

On Pentecost Sunday we hear of how the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles as “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) which led them to speak in different languages and inexplicably understand one another. In the second reading from 1 Corinthians, we are invited to imagine the Church as the Body of Christ with Jesus as its head and the Holy Spirit uniting it. In the Gospel reading we find ourselves with the Risen Jesus, pre-Ascension, granting the Apostles peace, proving his resurrection by revealing his wounded side, breathing upon them, and saying “Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20: 23).

I can’t help but imagine the homilies likely to be heard throughout the nation. The readings so easily lend themselves to messages about the unity of diverse peoples, the special gifts each person has to share with the world, the life-giving breath of God, and the power and authority of the Church given by Christ. But those messages, although true, will seem watered-down reflections lacking in substance and credibility because of their inability to make statements against the sins of the world, namely racism, sexism, and all forms of bigotry that counter the life of the Spirit. If we have learned anything from our communal reflection on the Acts of the Apostles this Easter season, it is that after the Ascension of Jesus and after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and disciples became a prophetic force whose actions and words had the power to change individuals and society. 

In light of all that has transpired this Easter season, I am forewarned by those final words of Jesus in the Pentecost Gospel reading, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” So often this verse is used to speak to the authority of the Church’s Apostolic tradition. However, it also serves as criteria by which the entire Church and especially those in authority will be judged. With the power to forgive and to retain sin, those with metaphorical and literal pulpits have the responsibility to name the sin.

Claudia Avila Cosnahan is the Director of Evangelization and Adult Faith Formation at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles and consultant to Commonweal. 

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