Seven weeks have passed since we celebrated the Lord’s resurrection at Easter, and now it is Pentecost. Until not so long ago, Pentecost was observed very grandly 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 expected to wear their crowns publicly on Pentecost. About all that’s left of that now in Europe is a three-day holiday weekend. And here in the United States we don’t even have that!
“Pentecost” comes from 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. And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks (Leviticus 23:15). Pentecost originated as an annual thanksgiving festival for the late spring, early summer harvest. 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. You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord (Leviticus 23:16). 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 (Acts 2:1-11). This year the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and the Christian feast of Pentecost perfectly coincide today - just as they did on that famous Pentecost in Acts 2.
By then (and even more so in the centuries since the destruction of the Temple), Pentecost had become a commemoration of the covenant at Mount Sinai, the giving of the Torah, God's great gift to his Chosen People (beginning with the “10 Commandments”), which had happened on the sixth day of the third month (Sivan) of the Jewish calendar. just about seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt. On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 19:1). 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 a Church of faith-filled witnesses empowered to transform the whole world.
From the accounts that have come down to us – in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles - one gets a sense of that original Easter season as a time of transition, as the focus perceptibly shifts from what Jesus has been doing to what the Church is 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.
Like the Jewish Shavuot, Pentecost is both the conclusion of Passover/Easter and an independent festival commemorating something distinctive (the gift of the Torah/the gift of the Holy Spirit) and the beginning of something new (the summer agricultural season/the time of the Church). In our current calendar, Pentecost marks the transition from Easter to Ordinary Time, the time of fulfillment, the time of the Church, empowered by the Risen Lord’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit to reflect the experience and promise of Christ’s resurrection in our ordinary lives in the world. 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, empowered by the Risen Lord’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit we continue Christ’s work in the world.
This is how one contemporary Easter hymn, Michael Ward’s In the Breaking of the Bread, describes what happened that first Pentecost: they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church left that Upper Room, never to return. Instead, they ran out into the street to tell them, Everyone that they could meet, to tell them.
One dimension of that work is especially highlighted in the Pentecost story. When the disciples ran out into the street in Jerusalem, they found there, as already mentioned, devout Jews from every nation under heaven, who had come as pilgrims to celebrate the feast. They were fellow Jews, but Jews from many nations speaking different, mutually incomprehensible languages. But, when the apostles spoke, each one heard them speaking in his or her own language.
So, a second thing the Holy Spirit did at Pentecost was to break down barriers, beginning with the basic barrier of language. To those who know their Bible, the meaning is clear. The Holy Spirit is undoing the damaging inability of people to communicate that originally come about as a result of human beings’ sinful attempt to construct a tower to get them to heaven on their own (Genesis 11:1-9). Through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, however, the Church undoes the disunity of the human race, reuniting it in something new. Diversity is a dimension of human existence in this world, but the Holy Spirit’s accomplishment at Pentecost was to begin the journey to the unity and universality which is one of the marks of the Church. Thus, in the 19th century, at a time of increasing immigration to the United States, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), the future founder of the Paulist Fathers reflected upon how the Church in this country was “forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people” (The Church and the Age, 1887), a promise still far from being fulfilled in our increasingly fractured society.
Both before and after the Tower of Babel, of course, the damage done by human divisions has taken many destructive forms. In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul listed several of them (Galatians 5:19-21). Thanks, however, to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the Church, there are other lists.
Years ago, when 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.
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 commissioned, filled with the Holy Spirit, to renew the face of the earth as the Risen Christ’s permanent presence in the leavened bread of daily life in the world.
(Photo: Pentecost Mosaic, Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Artistic renditions of that first Pentecost frequently focus on the 12, typically depicted as grouped in a circle around Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the Mother of the Church. In this famous mosaic in the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, however, each of the 16 nationalities that are mentioned in the story is represented by a pair of figures, thus representing the universality of the Church.)
Post a Comment