Breaking the Fourth Wall

Solemnity of Pentecost Scripture Readings

In dramatic performances, there’s a fiction called the “fourth wall.” A classical stage setting has three visible walls and a fourth, invisible wall behind which we, the audience, sits. “Breaking the fourth wall” happens when an actor steps out of the scene and addresses the audience directly. There doesn’t even need to be any other visible walls. Even in a theater-in-the-round, where the audience surrounds the dramatic action, an actor can “break the fourth wall” simply by acknowledging the presence of the audience. What the coming of the Holy Spirit, after the death, resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus accomplished was to “break the fourth wall” in salvation history.

By his very nature, God constantly reveals himself to his creation. God reveals himself through nature, through history, and through personal, intimate relationships with humankind. Yet, God doesn’t force anyone to receive his self-revelation and communication. Like any radio frequency-activated device, we have to be tuned in to God’s frequency in order to receive his signals. There’s an ancient principle of communication that states, “Whatever is received is received in the mode of the receiver.” In other words, in order to speak meaningfully to me, you have to speak my language. Or, in order for me to understand what you’re saying, I have to learn yours.

With regard to God’s self-revelation, therefore, not all receivers receive the whole message … or any message at all. What set the people of Israel apart from all other peoples was their willingness to listen attentively to the Word of God. What made them the “chosen people” was not God’s preference, but that they, among all peoples, were sensitive to, recognized, and accepted their intimate relationship with God. What makes a student the “teacher’s pet?” It’s that the student is anxious to pay attention, to learn, to become actively engaged, and to respond. Thus it was—and still is—with the people of Israel from the time of Abraham and beyond.

Over the centuries, the people of Israel recognized and valued the unique relationship that they had established with their God. They guarded that relationship jealously and built walls of rules and regulations to safeguard that precious gift. History had taught them well the consequences of taking that relationship for granted. Time and again, they’d allowed themselves to drift away from it, and with disastrous consequences.

The people of Israel are known as “The People of the Book” because the living story of their special relationship with God is enshrined there in their Scriptures. Their unique appreciation of time allows them to experience in the present the foundational events of their nation. For example, the Passover Haggadah begins, “We were slaves in Egypt ….” We not they. In their telling of the story of the foundations of a nation of faith, that foundation comes alive. Or, better yet, they’re able to live it in the here and now. It’s not just some long-past historical event. It lives and takes flesh in the telling. That’s how the Word of God becomes flesh and how it becomes flesh in the telling or our Passover from death to life in this Eucharist. Israel is the womb that brought forth the Word of God in human form. There’s no relationship more intimate and profound than for God to become one of us.

Pentecost tells us that it can’t stop there. The suffering, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah can’t be confined to those boundaries established by and for the people of Israel. God doesn’t play favorites. A child is born to take its place in the world and can’t remain forever enclosed within the womb. So it is for God. The coming of the Holy Spirit as God’s gift to those who believe is God “breaking the fourth wall.” Suddenly we, the people of the world, no longer make up a passive audience, simply observers of the drama unfolding before us. God now addresses us with the same intensity and intimacy that the children of Israel enjoy. But wait! There’s more! “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says.

We’re no longer the audience. Each of us has been given a role to play and lines to speak in the drama of salvation. The Word that took flesh in Jesus and showed himself to the people of Israel now takes flesh in us and empowers us to be the Word made flesh in our world. The Holy Spirit has called us to leave our comfortable seats and take the drama of God’s love out of the theater and into the streets.

Finally, Saint John quotes Jesus as saying, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained.” Just as God doesn’t condemn but holds up for us Christians a sacred standard of love by which we can measure our own thoughts, words, and deeds, so, by our love and faithfulness we become that standard for others. We cannot and do not pass a judgment of condemnation on others. If we’re faithful to our calling, then others—consciously or unconsciously—measure their own attitudes and behaviors against ours. We know that sin is a breakdown in the relationships between God and us, between others and us, and between our better selves and us. A change of mind and heart on the sinner’s part—perhaps inspired by our example—brings restoration to these relationships, and, therefore, forgiveness. However, if there’s a stubborn refusal to change, even in the presence of a better alternative, they’ll remain stuck in their self-created isolation. Through no fault of ours, their sins are retained.

We’ve received the Holy Spirit. We’ve had our Pentecost. The fourth wall has been broken, and the world awaits us. The only way we can keep the gifts of the Holy Spirit we’ve received is to give them away. We give them away not by becoming missionaries and trying to “convert” others to our way, but by being examples in our thoughts, words, and deeds, of the unconditional love we’ve encountered in Jesus. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I also send you …. Receive the Holy Spirit.”

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