Pentecost - 2018
Forty Martyrs'; St Bede's (6.15)
I have a few books on my shelves which go by the collective title 'virtual history'. They are exercises in imaginative thinking, thinking as it were the unthinkable, but as they have to be grounded in close knowledge of what did happen they can give insight into historical matters. You might be familiar with the concept. It is the notion of "What if...".
What if the Saxon forces of Harold had defeated the Normans of William in 1066? and they nearly did; what sort of nation might we have become? Had the Battle of Britain been lost would invasion have been inevitable and how would Capt Mainwaring. Jones and Pike and all that fearless troops have fared? The questions are myriad; the speculation endless.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and the birth of the Church under the powerful guidance of the Holy Spirit. The apostles with others of Jesus' group wait in Jerusalem in obedience to the command of the Lord and on the feast that originally celebrated the wheat harvest and which had become associated with the making of the Covenant on Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law, amid thunder and lightening, when the words of God were carried to the people on tongues of flame, on this feast of fifty days the Spirit comes as roaring wind and tongues of flame and the little group are empowered to go out and preach. People of many nations, it seems to be folk from the lands that the Church of Jerusalem would evangelize, people from the far East, the Parthians on the eastern border of the Roman Empire to Rome itself, in Luke's vision, the ends of the earth, people from many nations hear the word and many are converted.
But what if, what if the Spirit had not come down at Pentecost? What if the apostles had been left waiting. This might seem too silly but the early Church expected the Lord Jesus to return in glory, within a generation, and we are still waiting. What if the world was still waiting the coming of the Spirit?
The apostles and the women would presumably have drifted away; leaving Jerusalem to return to their homes and old jobs, full of memories and with a great desolation in their hearts. There would have been no followers of a supposed Messiah appearing drunk in their enthusiasm and in their strange speech that Pentecost day and so there would have been no converts and Paul would have had no one to persecute. He would have remained a Pharisee in Jerusalem; he need never have gone to Damascus and would have had to take sides in the factionalism that followed the Jewish Revolt.
Jerusalem would still have been destroyed by the Romans and the Temple razed. But the Emperor Nero would have had to find other scapegoats for the fire that destroyed much of Rome. And without Christians to be seen as the mortal enemy, the Jews might have found themselves even more persecuted and perhaps not have survived as a cohesive religious group.
Constantine two and half centuries later would not have won the Empire through a vision of the cross and paganism in its many forms would have long been the religion of the Empire. When Islam rose there would not have been any cohesive force to stand firm in its path. By the start of the Middle Ages the known world might be entirely Muslim.
The Muslims produced talented philosophers and scientists. There would have been progress, but no Renaissance and no Enlightenment. The Church was the driving force behind most sponsorship of the arts, and much scientific development. Everyone recalls the persecution of Galileo but few know that there is a long-established observatory in the Papal Palace at Castelgandolfo.
The world would not possess some of its great literature - the Gospels and Paul's epistles and the many works that they have inspired. The development of music would have been very different.
Moreover, the moral compass which Christianity gives to its followers and to many who disown its teachings and its practical adherence would be lacking. The consequences of life without a moral guide are clear to see in many places in our society today. You don't need to speculate about that. The idea of the worth of all people, and universal human rights may never have developed. Slavery probably would never have ended.
It is, of course, impossible to say what the lack of grace, the absence of the celebration of the Mass, the dirth of prayer would mean to the world. We might not think the world a nice place now but without the Spirit it would have become infernal.
While the Church has at times been responsible for appalling injustices as its leaders have been closed to the influence of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless that influence for the good across two millennia has been colossal. The Spirit, blowing through the house on the apostolic group on Pentecost Day did renew the face of the earth.
What if the Spirit had not come? Disaster at all levels. A God-less world is another name for Hell. And needless to say, we would not be here today celebrating Madeleine/ Bartek's first Holy Communion.
But the Spirit did come and continues to come to the hearts of those who believe. The work of renewal goes on. And thinking the unthinkable might help us appreciate how the Spirit moves in our lives today.