I guess it’s just a symptom of my childlike approach to life. When I was reflecting on the feast of Pentecost celebrated this weekend, I thought of a contemporary Nickelodeon cartoon series – Avatar: The Last Airbender and its second generation sequel The Legend of Korra. I believe this series to be one of the greatest spiritual and political treatises ever produced by humanity, and I am saddened that most people will probably dismiss it because it is a children’s animated show.
The main hero in both the original Avatar show and its sequel is “the Avatar,” who has the power to control the four elements – air, water, earth, and fire. Other characters in the show can control only one element, and some have no such power at all, but the Avatar (a playful yet powerful Dalai Lama-like figure reincarnated into each generation) must overcome his or her human tendencies and use this special power to bring balance to the world.
Avatar Korra is no great spiritual master; she is a teenager and a fighter at heart, and she struggles through episode after episode to grasp the basics of meditation and surrender to a power greater than herself, whether it be the city authorities, the monk who is her mentor, or the boy on whom she has a crush.
In the last episode, Korra faces her nemesis, who permanently disables her ability to bend the the elements, and she understandably falls into a deep depression, questioning her worth and very existence now that she has lost her unique talent. It is in this lowest of moments that she finally makes contact with her own spiritual nature, and the spirit of the previous Avatar, Ang, tells her that it is when we are at our weakest that we are most open to being transformed. Korra goes on to experience a miraculous healing and is then able to heal others.
I wonder if the good folks at Nick knew they were making a story about Pentecost.
Those of us who grew up in the Catholic Church connect the annual Feast of Pentecost with the Sacrament of Confirmation, in which we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit.” Like many cradle Catholics, I went through this sacrament in high school, and like young Korra, I was disappointed when it wasn’t the deep spiritual experience I was expecting.
I thought the ceremony would open my heart and mind in some tangible way and that I would experience the Holy Spirit in the same way I could taste the host and the wine at the Eucharist. I was a little disappointed when I felt exactly the same after the liturgy was over. The sky did not split open, and I did not hear the voice of God. I didn’t even feel so much as a shiver when the Bishop laid his hands on my head.
What I failed to understand at the time is that, like the sacrament of Baptism, Confirmation is a sacrament of initiation. It’s not the end if the journey, and for most of us it is not the spiritual awakening we think of when we read the story of the Apostles’ Pentecost. It is the only the beginning of the journey.
I like to think of it as a strong wind blowing the door open, or maybe just a slight breeze. I can choose to walk through the door into a new adventure, or I can choose to stay put. But the transformation will only happen if I cross that threshold and make the journey in which I lose myself to find myself.
At the first Pentecost, the Apostles had already made that journey. They were in many ways at their weakest and lowest. Their savior and best friend had been brutally persecuted and killed, unbelievably came back from the dead, only to leave them yet again. It must have been incredibly confusing and painful.
“You’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you have.” I know I’ve written about that quote before, but it bears repeating. It’s what Pentecost means. I must be empty and open before I can be filled. The tighter I cling to what I have or the more I fill myself with what cannot satisfy me, the less room in my heart for the gifts of the Spirit.
There are multiple readings for the Feast of Pentecost, some intended for the Saturday night vigil mass and other different ones intended for the Sunday masses. Most of the stories are familiar to us: the Tower of Babel, Moses on Mt. Sinai, apocalyptic visions from Ezekiel and Joel, and New Testament stories of the Last Supper discourse, Jesus appearing to the disciples after His death, and the coming of the Holy Spirit documented in the Acts of the Apostles. We hear of the many gifts and one spirit so familiar to us from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, and lots of description of what it means to be a spiritual being having a human experience in his letter to the Romans.
The singular thread running through them all is hope. “For in hope we are saved,” Paul tells the Romans. In the Avatar series, the main character represents hope for the powerless. In my life, it is hope that gets me up in the morning and keeps me moving through the low days, and it is hope that I strive to give to others on the days when I’m overflowing with life. For the Apostles, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit gave them hope to carry the message of Christ to all the corners of the world.
There is no more powerful force than hope.