I learned yesterday at a meeting of religious leaders that New Jersey is the most diverse state in the country. California would like to claim that honor, but the data, so I am told, clearly favors residents of the Garden State. For some people, diversity gets confused with density – and its corresponding lack of open space, treacherous traffic and foul air. It turns out that other states have long conceded New Jersey to have premier status in the density department. For other people, greater diversity poses a threat to the established garden. New perennials show up in the garden --and some of the new arrivals, while seeking perennial status and full inclusion, are looked upon as weeds.
In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that diversity is the perfection of the universe. If that is the case, and I believe that it is, northern New Jersey is a remarkable gift. All representations of humanity are in official or undocumented residence here. Yet there is a tendency in all of us – which is reinforced by our culture, that in the face of greater diversity we need to seek more security. Instead of opening up, there is a desire to seal off. But in the Christian faith, the presence of greater diversity is an invitation to hospitality -- because with greater the diversity there is more opportunity to see how and where God is working.
For more than a decade, I have come to regard the Feast of Pentecost as the liturgical celebration of diversity. It was the day when “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) Everyone was there -- in one room. It was an incredible opportunity for the release of the Spirit, which, of course, is exactly how the story describes it. Tongues of fire alighted on everyone’s head – and as the people spoke in different languages the invisible and ineffable Holy Spirit enabled them to understand one another.
When I was a parish priest, Pentecost was a day of some anxiety. I worried if people would come – mainly because the itch for summer may have already arrived (and certainly had if Pentecost fell on Memorial Day weekend, as it does this year); and partly because the parish had expended most of its energy preparing for Easter and then celebrating it. And then I would always sweat through the reading of the first lesson – wondering if the reader could manage the diction and diphthongs (“Parthians, Medes, Elamites…” and the real killers “Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphilia”).
But then we would read the Gospel – in two or three – and one year we had eighteen different languages at once. The cacophony was the music of God’s glory, and the diversity directed us to perfection. Not our perfection. But the perfection as generated by the Holy Spirit – which we are invited to receive as pure gift. And which we are then invited to invite others into.
I have never been able to really figure out if the Holy Spirit is wind or breath, if it is male or female, if it is a dove or a butterfly -- if it has a corporeal dimension to it or is just floating in the air. I have never been really sure what the Holy Spirit is. But from my spiritual experience, I can witness to what the Holy Spirit does. It opens hearts and brings people together. Parthians and Medes; black, white, brown yellow and red; rich and poor; old and young; gay and straight; high church, low church, broad church, emerging church and no church. That is all the Holy Spirit has ever done. No more than that – and no less either. The Holy Spirit opens hearts to the ministry of hospitality to one another – deep, radical hospitality. And the Holy Spirit brings the diversity of the human family into authentic, life-giving community.
May we all prepare our souls to celebrate the gift of the Spirit this Pentecost.