Pentecost, Mayno 1618, Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain.
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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, 2:3-4a.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that there were Jews in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost from all over the place, stating that there were “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene…” just to emphasize the point. They were not there to celebrate the Birthday of the Church which is not too surprising as at that moment the entire Christian Church was huddled in a small room somewhere in the city, fearing for their lives. Being the followers of the crucified criminal Jesus of Nazareth, they expected to have the same punishment meted out on them for claiming he was the Messiah. The gospel of St. John tells us that they were behind locked doors, and says it twice! They were definitely not pilgrims for the feast of Pentecost! Yes, it was originally a Jewish festival, and still is, except the Greek name for the feast has been changed to the Hebrew name, Shevuot, the Feast of Weeks. We Christians eventually took the name of Pentecost to ourselves! Pentecost sort of means weeks; the Greek word Pentēcostē, Πεντηκοστή, means fiftieth, or the 50th day, about seven weeks, after Passover. It was originally the Hebrew feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, but evolved into the Feast of the Law, the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai. Tradition had it that 50 days after leaving Egypt, the Hebrew people arrived at Sinai. In a sense, the first fruits of their liberation was the acceptance of God’s Law, hence becoming the Chosen People. It became one of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, meaning those who could would journey to Jerusalem and worship in the Temple (the other festivals are Passover and Sukkot, the feast of shelters or tabernacles, shortly after Yom Kippur). And so Jerusalem was packed that day, as mentioned in today’s first reading. Then it happened.
What could possibly explain the total and complete transformation of a group of terrified people huddled in a locked room, into boisterous, loud, preaching and proselytizing missionaries for that same Jesus of Nazareth?
A loud bang, a strong wind (inside the locked room), something looking like flames of fire coming down on each of them huddled there, and they were all transformed. The locked door was ignored, smashed open, never to be locked again. The Christian message was unleashed on the world for the first time, and the church was born! Not only that, but these new missionaries could suddenly speak all those languages listed above, out of the blue. It was as if the curse of the Tower of Babel, the sinful pride of whose builders angered God so much that they suddenly could only speak in incomprehensible languages to each other (Genesis 11:1-9), was reversed! All who would listen could now hear the new teaching in their own language. The new teaching was universal! Whoever it was that had achieved all that, had God-like power of transformation and focus. The Church was born!
The Cenacle, the “Upper Room” in Jerusalem. Traditionally, this is the site of the Last Supper and the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Well, it was the fulfillment of the promise Jesus had made before ascending to his Father in heaven, commemorated ten days ago. As told at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, he ordered them to “stay in Jerusalem (which at least two, fleeing to Emmaus, had disregarded) and await for the promise of the Father about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And what a difference that made! It was perhaps the greatest miracle in the Church ever, without which, it must be said, there would be no church. Those cowering people, terrified that a knock on the door would mean crucifixion, could never have carried Jesus’ message anywhere. It would have died with them. Instead, there they were, out amid the Pentecost pilgrims proclaiming the New Covenant, one which overshadows the Old Law or Covenant (the very focus of the Pentecost festival), which had been revealed by none other than the man crucified only 50 days earlier, the Messiah himself. That was what they were preaching fearlessly to anyone who would listen.
Symbols of the Holy Spirit of God, Loyola Press.
This day inaugurated the Age of the Holy Spirit. Centuries before, beginning with the still small voice of God talking to Abram/Abraham, recorded in the 12th chapter of the Book of Genesis, we slowly became aware of God the Father, as God gradually revealed His Divine Nature, through the centuries, to the Hebrews. The Father spoke through the prophets, but then at last sent His Son to speak to us directly, the Age of God the Son. Jesus interpreted all that we knew of God in such a way that we, too, could be the children of God by obeying his teachings and following his example. After his return to the Father in heaven, our present Age began, guided by the Holy Spirit of God, whose immense powers were vividly on display on this birthday of the Church. The last 2000 years have seen the Holy Spirit at work in the church, especially through the saints who have called us back to The Way (the first name given to the Christian Church) time and again. So today the first Christians received the powers of God’s Holy Spirit in the most dramatic and successful way possible, and began to spread the Word to the world. We are their successors. It is up to us to continue spreading that same Word in whatever ways are open to us. This can be directly through what we say and the way we say it, what we do and how we do it, and indirectly through our example of decent Christian living. And ultimately in the overall impression we give to those around us, who, we hope, will be attracted to that same source of strength, hope and happiness which give us our reason for living day in and day out.
Symbol of The Holy Trinity, Lightstock.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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