Sermon for the Votive Mass for the Vigil of Pentecost
Sangre de Cristo Chapter Retreat/Society of the Holy Trinity
May 8, 2008
The Rev. Dr. David M. Wendel, STS

Pastor, Saint Luke's Lutheran Church, Colorado Springs, CO

Lessons: Exodus 19:1-9; Romans 8:14-17, 22-27; St. John 7:37-39

    In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

    We have a group of adults at Saint Luke's who are currently studying the book, Church Unity and the Papal Office, published by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. It is an ecumenical response to John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint, and it's been a timely study, given Benedict XVI's recent visit to the U.S. And in the introduction, Braaten and Jensen, the editors, state that "the pope's ecumenical devotion to unity is based on Jesus' high priestly prayer in Chapter 17 of St. John's Gospel, as John Paul II writes, 'This is truly the cornerstone of all prayer: the total and unconditional offering of one's life to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit...Christ's prayer to the Father is offered as a model for everyone, always and everywhere'. John Paul II expresses his confidence that if we would take Christ's call to unity to heart, 'that all may be one', every factor of division can be transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel."[1]

    Surely, without a doubt, there's not one of us here this evening, who doesn't agree, in principle, with our Lord as he prays that we all may be one. Nor would we disagree, in principle, with John Paul II, that Christ's prayer to the Father is a model for everyone, always and everywhere. But we would also have to concur, that every factor of division being transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel—is still a long way off. It's so far off, most of us today no longer see it off on the horizon. It is, rather, a "pipe dream"—a "wish dream"[2] as Bonhoeffer liked to talk about Christian community—something that appears, and then wisps away in the wind. When I was ordained in 1981, I thought I could see great unity coming upon the Church, and our church. It seemed ecumenical dialogues were in full bloom, and post Vatican II there were yes, even joint activities and prayer services between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, so that I thought it not unrealistic to expect that Lutherans and Roman Catholics would be having some sort of limited Eucharistic sharing, in my lifetime. It seemed so near, we could almost reach out and grab it, or at least hurry it along by our local ecumenical efforts. And then, the scandal of divided Lutheran denominations appeared to be coming to a close, with the advent of a new Lutheran church—which brought mostly excitement and hopefulness—in spite of the fact that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod was still suffering from the wounds of the '70's, and our high expectations for a common Lutheran worship book were tempered by the fact that there would be two versions, of the one Lutheran worship book. But still, in 1981, we had high hopes for ecumenism and unity, inter-denominationally, and intra-denominationally. I spoke to my congregation in Hobbs, New Mexico, about the Holy Spirit healing the division in the Church, and leading us to, indeed, take Christ's call to unity to heart, that all may be one, and every factor of division could be transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel.

    And have we arrived? Do we now experience unity in the Body? Has the ELCA been all that we'd hoped for, in terms of uniting at least three branches of Lutheranism in America? And have the various full communion agreements between various denominations born much fruit, and created a stronger, more viable witness to the world? And after the break in Missouri in the '70's, has the LC-MS come, finally, to a place of harmony and oneness in doctrine, liturgy and practice? It would almost seem that the Spirit, far from leading us into greater unity, has seen fit to confound us further—as if we had been once again building some monumental tower, as a testament to our own greatness—so that God saw fit to "babble" us up all over again! Division and disunity in the ELCA has existed from the very beginning—over quotas and doctrine of ministry and now sexuality. The Missouri Synod? Disputes and accusations and the church growth movement have and continue to take their toll. ELCA full communion relationships with the Episcopalians and the Reformed churches, while surely doing some good somewhere, are generally seen as anti-climatic—as one Lutheran professor declared it—it's something of "ecclesiastical necrophilia". Think about that phrase for a while. The reality in churches and the Church today has caused Fr. Ephraim Radner to ask, in his book The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West, [3] whether God might have withdrawn His Holy Spirit from the Church, given the division and disunity rampant in the Body of Christ as a whole, and in individual ecclesial communities. For those of us who thought we understood what Radner was saying in that dense work, it was shocking to think of such a thing. Surely God would not withdraw His Spirit from His Church. And yet, what if it were true? What would be our response? How would we react, in the Church, to the fact of the withdrawal of the Spirit, from the Body of Christ?

    I would suppose one response would be to hold a Votive Mass for the Vigil of Pentecost, so that we might get down on our knees and pray fervently, as we await the Great Festival of Pentecost, that again, God would send His Spirit upon the Church;  that again, God would not withhold His Spirit, but pour the Spirit out upon us, so that our spiritual thirst might be quenched, and out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water—which Jesus himself said about the Spirit, which believer's in him were to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit. And why a "votive mass", and a "vigil" of Pentecost? In speaking of the development of so-called "private masses", our respected senior explains in his book Christian Liturgy, citing J.A. Jungmann, the reason for Votive Masses, was to address the earnest concerns, the "vota" of the faithful—hence, "votive services".[4] The reason for a vigil, is literally, to watch, or stay awake, waiting for something or someone—so that a vigil in church is not just to be a service marking the eve of a festival, but a service of watchful waiting for the coming of the festival, a service of staying awake, praying for the coming of the festival—which, in the case of a vigil of Pentecost, means not just praying for the advent of the festival, but for the advent, anew, of the Holy Spirit!  That's why, in response to disunity, in the Church and in the World, in response to the division and divisiveness, in response to the violence Christians do to one another, not to mention the violence done between nations and peoples and families and persons—we gather to pray for our earnest concerns, our "vota"—and we do so, most appropriately, in a vigil of Pentecost, as we yearn for the Spirit, and cry out for the Spirit, and pray that the Spirit would, Himself, bear witness with our Spirit, to come and help us in our weakness—to intercede for us with sighs too deep for words. Odd, isn't it, that as we pray for the gift and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, in our weakness and brokenness, we have to rely on that same Spirit, to assist us, and to intercede for us, in sighs too deep for words. And why do we pray for unity, on Pentecost? Why is this an appropriate time for us to ask the Spirit to come, bring unity on earth? Why Pentecost?

    Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, writes, "Here, the liturgy of the Eastern Church can point us in a useful direction. The Eastern Church on Pentecost Sunday celebrates the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, and on Monday, the outpouring of the Spirit...this liturgical arrangement belongs close together and shows us something of the inner logic of faith. The Holy Spirit is not an isolated is according to the Spirit's essence to direct us into the unity of the Triune God. He leads us to the unity of God. Looking to the Holy Spirit means overcoming distinction and recognizing the ring of eternal love that is the highest unity. He who wants to speak of the Spirit must speak of the Trinity of God. The Holy Spirit points to the Trinity, and thereby he points to us. For the Trinitarian God is the archetype of the new united humanity, the archetype of the Church, as the prayer of Jesus may be seen as its word of institution: 'that they may be one, even as we are one.' If the Holy Spirit expresses and is the unity of God, then he is the real vital element of the Church in which distinction is reconciled in togetherness and the dispersed pieces of Adam are fit together again."[5]

    The Holy Spirit points to the Trinity, and to the unity that should be ours, is to be ours in the Body of Christ. We see the ideal, but how does that become reality for us? How can we make this unity happen? Obviously, we can't. We have tried, we have dialogued, we have done this and that, marched to and fro, and it doesn't seem to come, in spite of our most heartfelt and well-intentioned efforts. So, do we just keep on praying our votive masses for unity? Are we down to that, alone?  Yes! And waiting, and watching, as we pray, for the Holy Spirit, the unity of the Holy Trinity. Waiting and watching and praying for the Spirit of unity, to come upon us, each and every one of us, to bring us, finally, the Holy Communion of the Triune Godhead.

    St. John Chrysostom wrote of the tongues of fire at Pentecost, "For just as fire kindles as many lamps as it will, so here the abundance of the Spirit was shown. Each one received a spring of Spirit, just as he himself said, that those who believe in him shall have a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."[6] Cyril of Jerusalem says do not be afraid of this division of tongues—that fire landed on each one individually— but, "this is divine power. In that former confusion of tongues at Babylon, there was a division of purpose, for the intention was impious. Here, (at Pentecost), there was a restoration and union of minds, since the object of their zeal was righteous. Through what occasions the fall (at Babylon), came the recovery (at Pentecost)."[7]

    And that is what we must be praying for, fervently, in the Church and in our churches, and in the Society of the Holy Trinity today. A restoration and a union of minds, oriented towards a goal that is both zealous, and righteous. A coming of divine power on each of us, a spring of the Spirit, welling up in each of us, gushing up to life and abundant life and eternal life, such that springs of living water shall flow out of our hearts—in love for God and our neighbor. If we care about unity and oneness in the Body of Christ, surely Pentecost must become, if not the chief festival of the church year, then at least it ought to be restored as one of the great three—marking not just the end of Spring and the coming of Summer, but the great feast of the Spirit, and of the Unity of the Trinity, and of the uniting of the Church. For those of us who yearn for the unity of the Body of Christ, perhaps a votive mass on the Vigil of Pentecost each year, would be warranted, as our focus would become watching and waiting, and groaning in the Spirit, for the unity we seek, with sighs too deep for words—as out of the depths, we cry, together, to the Lord—Lord, hear our voice, and let thy ears be attentive to the voice of our supplications!

    In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!


[1] Braaten, Carl E. and Robert W. Jenson, editors. Church Unity and the Papal Office: An Ecumenical Dialogue on John Paul II's Encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" (That All May Be One. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 1-2.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 26.

[3] Radner, Ephraim. The End of the Church;  A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)

[4] Senn, Frank C. Christian Liturgy; Catholic and Evangelical. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 222.

[5] Ratzinger, Joseph. Images of Hope; Meditations on Major Feasts. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 63-73.

[6] Ratzinger, Joseph. Images of Hope; Meditations on Major Feasts. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 72.

[7] Martin, Francis, editor. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; New Testament V, Acts. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006. 24.


Society of the Holy Trinity

Copyright © 2008 Society of the Holy Trinity. All rights reserved.
Posted -- 15 June 2008

Home Page: