When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
With this dramatic description from today’s first reading, we hear the evangelist Luke portray the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church as the apostles are empowered to speak to the crowds who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Weeks. As we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, allow me to reflect on its significance in the Church and in our lives and the lives of every follower of Christ.
First, I would like to reflect on the historical setting of Pentecost. The Old Testament speaks of a festival of the first fruits of the grain called “Ingathering,” “Harvest,” or “Weeks. The last name is given to the feast because it is celebrated seven weeks after Passover (cf. Ex. 34:22; Deut. 16:16, et al.). In Deuteronomy 16:16, we read: “Three times a year, then, every male among you shall appear before the Lord, your God, in the place which he chooses: at the feast of Unleavened Bread, at the feast of Weeks, and at the feast of Booths.” Since the temple in Jerusalem was the holiest of the Jewish places, the faithful would flock to Jerusalem not only at Passover (the feast of Unleavened Bread) but also at the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths. These were celebrations of thanksgiving to God who had blessed the people with another bountiful harvest. The Feast of Weeks was celebrated in the spring at the beginning of the harvest season while the Feast of Booths (so called because the harvesters lived in makeshift tents or booths in the fields to guard the crops) was the final harvest festival, celebrated in the fall. Since seven weeks are fifty days, both the Old Testament and the New Testament referred to the Feast of Weeks as “Pentecost” (from the Greek Πεντη – Pente – which means “fifty”).
In early Christianity, the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist was always a sort of Easter, a commemoration of the resurrection of Christ from the dead. It was not until the second century that various Churches began to observe an annual special time for Easter. As this developed, the Easter observance expanded quickly into a fifty-day period. At this time, the Easter season was called Pentecost. From the early fourth century, there has been a special festival called Pentecost that is assigned to the fiftieth day of this season and commemorates specifically the events that we hear about in the Acts of the Apostles 2: the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. In this same century, most Churches also began to distinguish the feast of the Ascension from that of Pentecost, celebrating the ascension on the fortieth day from Easter, as suggested by Acts 1:3, which speaks of the risen Lord appearing to the apostles for forty days before ascending into heaven. Originally, then, the Christian Pentecost took little from the Jewish festival of Weeks except its position on the calendar. For Christians, the meaning of Pentecost derived from the accounts in Acts (1:4, 5; 2:1-47) that portray the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which inaugurated the mission of the Church.
The Pentecost episode in Acts – part of which we hear in today’s Eucharistic celebration – present the Holy Spirit coming upon all of those gathered in prayer as Jesus had instructed. The Spirit’s presence was experienced as a strong, driving wind and “tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them” (v. 3). This enabled the apostles to preach ecstatically and convincingly to people of all nations in their own language. This, some scholars suggest, reverses the unintelligible babble of languages that had separated nations from the time that people tried to build a tower to heaven (cf. Gen 11:1-9; the account of the Tower of Babel). It is also seen as a beginning of the Church’s ministry which spread the Gospel far and wide in just a few centuries. Some scholars also see a reversal of the Old Testament situation when inspired prophets often spoke ecstatically but with little effect on the people.
The celebration of Pentecost empowers each generation to new beginnings in the Christian ministry. The Gospel must still be proclaimed far and wide today; even in our own country there is an increasing need to re-introduce the Gospel to so many who have forgotten or abandoned their faith! At the same time, the festival provides occasion to celebrate all the gifts of the Spirit that we have received at our baptism and confirmation; they’re much more precious than the fruits of the harvest. Traditionally, the Church speaks of the seven gifts of the Spirit that are listed in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 11:1-3: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, fortitude, counsel, piety and fear of the Lord. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states so well, “the moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit” (§ 1830). The Church also speaks of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, derived from the Letter to the Galatians 5:22-23: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity. The fruits of the Spirit, as the Catechism explains, “are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (§ 1832). In celebrating the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, we Christianize the Old Testament Festival of Weeks and rejoice in the first fruits of our faith!
In identifying Pentecost Sunday as the birthday of the Church, we recognize the many effects of the Spirit of God in our lives. We, who follow Christ, are able to call upon the Spirit to embolden us in doing God’s work. Just as those who were in the Upper Room, we receive the power of the Spirit in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. With this power, we can live as God calls us to live in the Book of Genesis – in his image and likeness! Now that we have been freed from the power of sin through the death and resurrection of Christ, we can live the moral life that Jesus showed us through his teachings and actions while he lived among us. Infused with the gifts of the Spirit of God, we can boldly proclaim the Gospel in our daily lives with wisdom and understanding. We can live piously, respecting God and everyone we meet, for everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. And living this way gives us the fruits of the Spirit, which allows us to live in joy and peace, with patience, kindness, goodness and generosity toward all, and faithfulness to God and our vocation.
Yes, Pentecost is still very important to us today. Let us, daily, open ourselves to the power of the Spirit and watch, amazed, as the apostles did, while the Spirit moves us in new and wondrous ways!