Until modern times, Pentecost was observed very grandly. It was celebrated as one of the greatest festivals of the Church’s calendar - on a par with Easter. It had an octave equal to Easter’s and even had its own Saturday morning vigil (complete with a blessing of baptismal water like at Easter). At one time, Kings and Queens were required to wear their crowns publicly on Pentecost. About all that’s left of that now in Europe is a 3-day holiday weekend. And here in the United States we don’t even have that!
“Pentecost” is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day after Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the “week” of seven weeks that began with Passover. It originated as a kind of thanksgiving festival for the late spring, early summer harvest (which is why the Book of Ruth, which culminates during the wheat harvest, is read in the synagogue on Shavuot). Whereas at Passover, seven weeks earlier, only unleavened bread had been used, at Pentecost ordinary bread was offered in the form of fully leavened loaves. It was to celebrate this festival that devout Jews from every nation under heaven came as pilgrims to Jerusalem, in the familiar story in the Acts of the Apostles.
By then, Pentecost had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 commandments, which (according to Exodus) had happened just about seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. Just as summer fulfills the promise of spring, the covenant at Mount Sinai fulfilled the promise of Israelite nationhood of which the exodus had been but the beginning. Likewise, the coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from fearful followers of a now absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses empowered transform the whole world.
In our current calendar, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time, the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, when the promise of Christ’s resurrection should be reflected in our ordinary lives. As his Church, we worship the Risen Lord, now ascended to heaven and seated at his Father’s right hand. Meanwhile, as his Church here on earth, we continue Christ’s work in the world.
We do this empowered by the Risen Lord’s parting gift of the Holy spirit to his Church. Years ago, when most of us were preparing for Confirmation, we memorized the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and the fear of the Lord. We call them the gifts of the Holy Spirit, because we don’t produce them on our own. They are given to us – to transform us into true children of God and to enable us to live in a new way. The results of that transformation, the visible effects we experience of the Holy Spirit active in our lives are what we call the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We memorized them too - charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.
As a young man growing up in New York the Jacksonian era, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers gravitated first to politics as the vehicle for the renewal of society. By his mid-20s, however, Hecker had become a Catholic and cam to envision the renewal of society in religious terms 0 in terms of openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and the effects of the Holy Spirit’s gifts in all aspects of life. “The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age, and the source of all true progress,” Hecker confidently claimed, “consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy spirit in the soul.” [The Church and the Age].
That’s how the promise of the resurrection is fulfilled and expresses its effect in our ordinary lives. Pentecost ritualizes annually what happens weekly with the transition from Sunday to Monday. From our Sunday celebration around the unleavened bread which has become the body of our Risen Lord, we are sent forth, filled with the Holy Spirit, to renew the face of the earth as the Risen Christ’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of our daily lives in the world.
Homily for Pentecost Sunday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 15, 2016.