Pentecost, The Sherbrooke Missal c.1315, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, Wales, UK.
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…. Acts of the Apostles, 2:3-4.
First of all, that name Pentecost. Today is the only day it is used and at no other time. It is from the Greek, meaning 50 days. At the time of Jesus, it was a totally Jewish feast, and it meant 50 days, less sabbaths, after Passover. You will also recall that this was also 50 days after the Last Supper, which was a Seder Passover meal, and all Jesus’ followers were hiding away behind locked doors, as St. John’s gospel puts it, terrified that they too would be put to the same gruesome death that Jesus had endured as they were his followers. In fact, you could quite accurately say that the entire Christian church was locked away in one room (and the tradition has it that the Blessed Mother was with them) in the middle of Jerusalem, unknown to just about everybody! Now, the Jewish Pentecost originally celebrated the First Fruits of the Harvest, hence it was a thanksgiving feast. Then it took on a second meaning. By tradition, it took 50 days from the liberation from slavery in Egypt, the location of the very first Passover, to reach Mount Sinai where the Hebrews received the 10 Commandments from God. Hence Pentecost was also the Feast of the Law. Over the centuries as Pentecost became more and more identified with Christian belief, the Jewish usage of the word died away and the feast became known as Shavuot, which is still its name today. Shavuot means “weeks”, hence it is the Feast of Weeks (50 days being roughly seven weeks). Finally, Shavuot/Pentecost was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts, when those who could would travel to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple; the other two were Passover and Sukkot. Now, from a Christian perspective, first, this accounts for the great number of pilgrims in Jerusalem at that time, as shown in the listing in Acts 2:5-12. Then there was the incandescent transformation of these timid first Christians into lions of the faith following the Descent of the Holy Spirit, another name for this day. With that, all fear thrown to the winds, they rushed into the crowded streets to preach the message of Jesus for the first time, so this was the Birthday of the Church. Count them; this feast has six different monotheistic names!
This event of total transformation is, in my opinion, one of the greatest signs, “proofs” if you like, of God’s presence and power here on earth. With the exception of John, all Jesus’ apostles were indeed eventually martyred for their belief, the very thing they were terrified of. Yet this was instantly forgotten, and they cared not a fig anymore for consequences. They ran into the streets and spoke to anyone who would listen, even, by the grace of God, speaking to them in their own language, which, it is believed, reversed the punishment given at the Tower of Babel. The Church was, indeed, born. This event initiated the Age of the Holy Spirit, in which we are all privileged to live. Salvation history can be divided into three eras: God the Father, from the time of Abram/Abraham to God the Son, the life and message and time of Jesus, to God the Holy Spirit, from the first Christian Pentecost to now. For the last 2000 years, the church has been guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, who has inspired holy people, the most courageous or heroic of whom we call saints, to call us all back to holiness down through the ages. Today’s other readings, I think, indicate that. And remember, there is a very strong case to understand the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God…
The Cenacle or Upper Room, supposed site of the Last Supper and Descent of the Holy Spirit, Jerusalem, Israel.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, one of the choices for today’s second reading, explicitly states that the Holy Spirit now works in us: No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. It seems like this is an explanation for the complete change in Jesus’ followers after the incredible event in the Cenacle. He develops his thought, comparing the varied gifts we as Christians enjoy, each individual gifted in different and wonderful ways, with the human body and its many parts, an insight he was to elaborate much more in his writings. He seems to be saying that the Spirit is, or should be, the driving force of all our actions, using the gifts God has given us. In that we we are all equal in the eyes of God, no matter our apparent differences. Today’s second choice gospel from John carries this further, with the Lord saying that our love of him is sufficient to keep us on the right course towards God. Indeed, Jesus says “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him…” So, given a right attitude in us, it seems we could each be the temple of God! With that understanding, we can experience something of the power and courage of those disciples in the Upper Room.
Another angle on this feast is to compare and contrast the Jewish and Christian feasts in parallel. The Feast of the First Fruits takes place 50 days after Passover, presumably when the first shoots of the year’s harvest have appeared. Compare that to the Christian 50 days. That began with the death of Christ, and the disappearance of his followers, hidden away in fear and trembling. Then, 50 days later, they burst out into that same world that had seemed so hostile. That’s like a seed suddenly coming to life, or a dead-seeming bulb bursting into a new Christian harvest. Then there is the second interpretation of the Jewish feast, the Feast of the Law. That contrasts the slavery and oppression of Egypt, where the first Passover took place, to the freedom and acceptance of God’s law on Mount Sinai. In comparison, contrast the bleak death of the Lord on Calvary and his followers vanishing, the triumph, as it were, of sin and death. Despite Jesus rising from the tomb, that was insufficient for his followers; they were still in hiding. Then the arrival of the Holy Spirit transformed that seeming victory of defeat and death into the proclamation of the Lord’s new command, law if you like, of love and promise of everlasting life, The original, old, covenant is transformed into the new covenant of life everlasting grounded in love of God, neighbor and self.
So today we celebrate the birthday of the Church, witnessing the power of God’s Holy Spirit which resulted in a movement which was to spread to the furthest corners of the world. We still enjoy the presence of the Trinity today in its many and varied ways; now what we do with that power is up to each of us. Perhaps we, like those first recipients of the Spirit, can also do wonderful things for God.
Pentecost (“Our Lady of the Cenacle”), from Minatures 1391, MS 8227, Matenadaran Institute, Yerevan, Armenia.