Why do we celebrate Pentecost? And what do we know about it
The primary source of this feast in scripture is found in the two texts of today’s liturgy. Acts 2:1-11 and John 20:19 -23. The first thing that strikes us when we read these texts is that they take place on two different days. In the Gospel of John, it takes place on Easter Sunday.
While taking about the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday, John 20:1 says “Early on the first day of the week…”; this is Easter Sunday. Now look at verse 19 of the same chapter, the Gospel reading of today which says, “when it was evening ON THAT DAY, the first day of the week…”(we are still in Easter Sunday) and then in verse 22 after giving them the gift of peace he “ breathed on them said to them , receive the Holy Spirit.”
On that first Easter Sunday, when Jesus breathed on his apostles, he gave them the Holy Spirit. But on Easter Sunday there were no tongues of fire or strong wind. On Easter Sunday, they receive the Holy Spirit with the mandate to forgive sins. Yet even though the Holy Spirit was given to them on this day we do not call this day Pentecost but refer to the text in Acts 2:1-11 as THE PENTECOST. So, what then is Pentecost and why is it celebrated on this day, fifty days later?
Many Catholics may imagine that the feast of the Pentecost is a Christian festival; well, its actually Jewish! Pentecost is a Greek work which when translated simply means 50; that which is celebrated fifty days later. The Jews have three important festivals that they pilgrimed to Jerusalem for; the Passover, the Pentecost and the feast of the tabernacles. The Pentecost was celebrated fifty days after the Passover.
The Pentecost celebrated two occasions. It was celebrated to honour the spring harvest and was seen as a time of thanks giving. It was at this time that the first fruits of the spring harvest were offered. The law in the Old Testament, the book of Deuteronomy chapter 16 mandated that every single adult male would come to Jerusalem for the Passover. Since the next major festival was just 50 days later and a journey back and forth would not be tenable, the pilgrims simply stayed over in Jerusalem for the feast of the Pentecost. Many of those who would arrive were Jews from other cities in the Roman world who were making a pilgrimage but spoke their own native languages. This accounts why on the first Pentecost the hear the apostles speak in different languages.
The Jews would congregate on the fiftieth day to celebrate the feast of the Pentecost which they called the feast of Shavout; this is the Hebrew word while Pentecost is a Greek word. Shavout translates as the feast of weeks. This brings us to the second occasion for the celebration of this feast. Remember that Pentecost was celebrated fifty days after the Passover. The Jews celebrated their first Passover in Egypt and fifty days later they found themselves at Mt Sinai. It is here that Moses gave them the law and hence it was called the feast of Shavout or weeks because it was seven weeks after Passover. Seven weeks into seven days is 49 days and the next day was the celebration of Shavout or Pentecost. So, Shavout or Pentecost also became for the Jews a festival of remembrance or a memorial when the law was given at Mount Sinai.
But Pentecost is also marked with the symbolic expressions. At the Baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove. At Easter Jesus breathed on them. So why is it that in the Acts of the Apostles we hear of the rush of wind and the tongues of fire. If you go back to the book of Exodus, chapter 19 :18, it describes God coming down on Mt Sinai to give the law and we are told that Mt Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord descended on it on fire and the smoke of it went up as in a kiln. So just as in the Old Testament the Lord came down from heaven and descended on Israel in fire to give them the Old Law, so now too, in the New Testament, in Pentecost the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles in tongues as of fire not to give them the old law written on stone but the new law written on their hearts.
What’s our take away from today?
Last Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension and the Church was handed over to the apostles and to us. The Church was given to believers and unbelievers. Pope Francis says the Church is a ‘field hospital’ it is meant to go out look for the least and the lost. It is not a reward for saints but a refuge for sinners. Today we are called to go out to the whole world empowered by the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday was the culmination not the conclusion of Christ’s work on earth. Go out and make disciples …we are called to GO OUT. Jesus is not asking the world to go to Church, he is asking the Church to go to the world. (Don’t miss read this as permission to skip your Sunday obligation but read it in context) The church cannot be captive only of its liturgical celebrations and structures but has a duty to go out to the world.