The Paradox of Pentecost — Presence and Absence

A stranger than strange text for today’s Feast of Pentecost, the day the Church celebrates the coming of the Spirit, the Advocate, reads:

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you…” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

It is Jesus in John’s Gospel who speaks these words to his disciples. They scratch their heads, like confused children being dropped off at camp against their will. They already sense the homesickness that will come. The thought of being abandoned brings anguish, the foreboding of oncoming forlornness.

The experience of absence, endemic to the human condition, is essential to faith. The feeling of anguished forlornness builds courage, and faith, of one sort or another, with or without an advocate.

Enter Jean-Paul Sartre’s reflections on anguish and forlornness. Fully conscious without religious crutches, I experience the anguish of my responsibility for myself and others, and the forlornness that realizes that I am alone in my decision-making. The decisions are mine along. No one but I am responsible.

Like the disciples, we want it to be otherwise. Some of us pray as though the feelings were a hoax, the Devil’s trickery or God’s pre-ordaining, as though our course were charted by another decision-maker disbelieved by Sartre. But regardless of our faith or faith denials, the truth is that to be human is to know this sense of anguish and forlornness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brilliant theologian imprisoned and executed by the Third Reich, caught the sense of it in a letter he wrote from a prison cell.

“The only way to be honest is to recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do see — before God! So our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation visa a vis God. God is teaching us that we must live as [people] who can get along very well without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). God who makes us live in the world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with him we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, which is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. Mark 8:17 makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and his suffering.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pp 219-220, McMillan Company, 1953, translated from German by Reginald H. Fuller.]

Bonhoeffer’s writing acknowledges the anguish and forlornness that precede the disappearance of the divine usurper of human freedom and responsibility. In place of the bad-faith God who keeps her children in diapers, there comes the advantage of Christ’s going away — the arrival of the Advocate who brings the unexpected joy of coming of age.

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [Gospel according to John 16:7].

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 24, 2015 – Feast of Pentecost.

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