Today is Pentecost Sunday, “the Birthday of the Church.”
Until modern times, Pentecost was observed as one of the greatest festivals of the church year, on a par with Easter. It had an octave equal to Easter’s, and even had its own Saturday morning vigil (complete with prophecies and 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. That’s not unlike the situation with our 3-day weekend next week. Until relatively recently, what we still nostalgically call “Memorial Day” was a real civic holiday with meaning and social significance, not just another excuse to contribute further to climate change and do other environmental damage by driving to the beach or to the mall.
“Pentecost” is a Greek word referring to the 50th day – originally the 50th day after the Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” a reference to the week of seven weeks that began with Passover. Originally an early summer thanksgiving feast at the time of the ancient Israelite wheat harvest, Shavuot was the second of the three great pilgrimage feasts in the Jewish calendar – the first being the spring feast of Passover and the third the great autumn harvest festival of Sukkot, which the New Testament typically calls “the Feast of the Tabernacles.” Pentecost originated as a joyful thanksgiving for the early summer harvest of grain, strawberries, cherries, peas, and asparagus. Two loaves, made from new flour, would be offered to God as the first fruits of the grain harvest. Whereas at Passover seven weeks earlier unleavened bread had been offered, at Pentecost ordinary bread was offered in the form of fully leavened loaves.
Shavuot is celebrated on the 6th day of the 3rd month of the Jewish calendar – 50 days after Passover. By New Testament times, Shavuot had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 Commandments, which (according to Exodus 19) all happened just about 7 weeks after the exodus from Egypt. It was to celebrate Shavuot that "devout Jews from every nation under heaven" came as Pentecost pilgrims to Jerusalem, in the familiar story read today from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:1-11).
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. And, just as 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 promised of the resurrection, transforming the disciples from fear-filled followers of a now absent Jesus into faith-filled witnesses commissioned to transform the whole world – beginning with that initial polyglot group of Pentecost pilgrims.
In our liturgical 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 glory and seated at the Father’s right hand. Meanwhile, as his Church, we continue Christ’s life and work in the world.
According to Acts, there were 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.
Many of us, when we were back being prepared for Confirmation, memorized the 7 gifts and the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit. Today’s gospel promises that the Holy Spirit will teach us everything and remind us of all we have been told. So let’s recall what we all learned long ago. The 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit are … wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
We call these gifts of the Holy Spirit, because we don’t start with them or produce them on our own. They are given to us – to transform us into true children of God and coheirs with Christ, to enable and empower us to live in a new way and thus fulfill the Church’s mission in the world. The results of that transformation, the visible effects we experience and recognize of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives are what we customarily call the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit. And they are … charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.
That’s how the promise of the resurrection is fulfilled and expresses its effect in our ordinary lives, which is the point of Pentecost.
Pentecost is thus the annual liturgical observance of what happens every week 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, to renew the face of the earth 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 forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth.
Homily given at St. Paul the Apostle Church, May 23, 2010.