At Pentecost, a lesson about paying attention

Pentecost is about paying attention. That became clear to me on a recent family visit to an art exhibit featuring works by some of the great Italian masters (Bellini, Titian, Botticelli and more). None of it involved the celebration of Pentecost.

May 07, 2015

By Mike Nelson
Pentecost is about paying attention. That became clear to me on a recent family visit to an art exhibit featuring works by some of the great Italian masters (Bellini, Titian, Botticelli and more). None of it involved the celebration of Pentecost. Or so I thought.

Among the featured works were three by Salvator Rosa, a 17th-century painter whose dramatic, large-frame landscapes often featured jagged rocks, twisted trees and foreboding skies. In one such work, “Landscape with the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan,” the people, in this case, those involved in the actual baptism, comprise a small part of the immense painting, which is dominated by the landscape: trees, rocks and large, dark gray clouds.

Admiring the painting (and the other Rosa pieces that took three walls of an exhibit room), I observed that by placing the people in such a small portion of the canvas, Rosa suggests the immensity of God’s creation. “You really do have to search for the Lord in this picture,” I smiled.

My wife, though, offered another view. “See how large the clouds are?” she asked, drawing my attention to St. Matthew’s Gospel (3:17): “A voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.’

Now, I have no idea whether Rosa was as smart as my wife (I wouldn’t bet on it), but his artwork and her insight into what it represents — that the voice of God is what really dominates this particular painting — are worth contemplating as we enter into the celebration of Pentecost.

One of Pentecost’s most enduring images (from Acts 2:5) is that of Galileans speaking in multiple languages (or tongues), yet each being understood by “devout Jews from every nation,” no matter which nation they were from.

“We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God,” declare the amazed listeners, 3,000 of whom followed Peter’s subsequent plea to “repent and be baptized” that very day.

“Understood,” yes. And also, I am sure, “appreciated.” Because, maybe that’s what Acts is getting at.

Those who became disciples not only heard “the mighty acts of God” proclaimed in their own language. They saw, and were no doubt impressed, by the fact that these Galileans were gripped by a powerful force (which we know as the Holy Spirit) that united them in devotion and service to God.

In other words, it wasn’t just words they paid attention to. They came, they saw, they listened to all that took place — just as my wife, in Rosa’s painting, looked beyond what I and probably most viewers of that artwork would cite as the “central action” and saw the presence of God in “the background.”

We often think of Pentecost as a call to discipleship, and rightly so. But that call means listening and seeing, as well as speaking. It is listening to, and watching for, the spirit of God’s message to us.

Let’s think about that, especially with so many loud and disparate voices seeking attention in our world. How much do we listen to one another? Are we too busy with our own lives, our own needs, to pay attention to what else might be happening? Are we too busy, in other words, to receive the Holy Spirit?

In our world, in our jobs, in our families, how often do we take time, not only to listen to the words of others, but to see others for what they are: fellow creations of God our Father? There is almost always much more going on in a picture, or in a conversation, than we might think. And if we wish to receive the Holy Spirit as fully and joyfully as it rushes upon us, we need to pay attention.

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