Seven weeks have passed since we celebrated the Lord’s resurrection. From the accounts that have come down to us – in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles - one gets a sense of the original Easter season as a time of transition, as the focus perceptibly shifts from what Jesus has been doing to what the disciples are going to do. As we all know, it takes time – sometimes a lot of time – to get people properly prepared for a major undertaking. So the Risen Lord prepared his disciples for the task ahead, laying out his program, and getting them “on board” to implement it, empowering them with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now, it’s Pentecost, and the implementation part begins in earnest.
That’s assuming, of course, that we notice! Pentecost was once one of the greatest festivals of the year, in both church and civil calendars. It was on a par with Easter. 60 years ago, it still had a week-long octave like Easter, and even had its own Saturday morning vigil (complete a blessing of baptismal water). At one time, Kings and Queens were expected to wear their crowns publicly on Pentecost. About all that’s left of all that now, in post-Christian Europe, is the 3-day Whitsun weekend. And here in the U.S., we don’t even have that.
Pentecost is a Greek word meaning the 50th day. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks” and refers to the seven weeks that began with Passover. Shavuot was the second of the three pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish agricultural calendar. In time, it became a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, which occurred (according to Exodus) about seven weeks after Israel’s escape from Egypt. Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the giving of the commandments fulfilled the promise of nationhood, of which the exodus had been but the beginning; and Pentecost’s gift of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples into faith-filled witnesses testifying to the wider world.
Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the Church,” since, as a result of having received the gift of the Holy Spirit during the Shavuot following Jesus’ Ascension, the apostles began the Church’s mission of preaching the Gospel to the whole world. Pentecost and the Church are what fulfill and complete the promise of Easter and carry Easter into the world of day-to-day life and work.
According to Acts, there were some 120 persons present in what tradition calls the Upper Room. Artistic renditions often focus particularly the 12 apostles along with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In a famous mosaic in the dome of the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, however, the 16 nationalities (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, etc.), who are mentioned in the story as having heard the Gospel preached in their native languages (thus undoing the damage done to the human community as a consequence of the Tower of Babel) are all represented in the scene, each by a male and female pair (an image of the universality of the Church).
For the Holy Spirit has not been given to us just so that we can feel good about ourselves, so that we can continue Christ’s presence among us in some purely private way (as if the Church were just a social club or some sort of inward-looking therapeutic community). On the contrary, the community which continues Christ’s life and work in the world must be as broad and wide as the world itself, which is why it must speak as many languages as there are to be heard in the world.
Today’s gospel reminds us that since apostolic times Sunday has been the privileged day when the Church experiences in its liturgy the continued presence of the Risen Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But Pentecost is also an annual reminder of what happens every week with the transition from Sunday to Monday. In the calendar, Pentecost marks the annual transition from Easter time to ordinary Time, our time, the time of the Church, when what began with the resurrection takes effect in our daily lives. From our weekly Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent out to the world, as one body and one spirit in Christ, as the Risen Lord’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.
In that sense, Easter doesn’t end at Pentecost, and Sunday doesn’t end on Monday, anymore than Mass ends with the Dismissal. We do indeed depart, but we do so changed and energized – sent out in the power of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.
Homily for Pentecost Snday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 12, 2011