Solemnity of Pentecost, Year C



First Reading: Acts 2:1-11; Response: Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 34; Second Rf1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

In last Sunday’s liturgy, we were made aware that there are different ways of expressing the glorification of the Lord Jesus through his ascension. Did he ascend on the day of his resurrection or 40 days after the resurrection? If we keep in mind that our gospel authors were not writing a history of Jesus but a theology of Jesus, then it should not matter that they have chosen different ways of expressing the ascension — or the ascending of his human nature to the same glory his divine nature had from eternity. This Sunday, the Solemnity of Pentecost, the liturgy will make us aware that there are also different ways of expressing the “descent” of the Holy Spirit, or rather the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. Our first reading expresses the Spirit’s presence that has chiefly influenced our liturgy, catechesis and art. To prepare for his story of “the Descent of the Holy Spirit,” after describing the ascension of Jesus, Luke added a list of the 11 remaining apostles and how they gathered for prayer with holy women disciples of Jesus; with Mary, the mother of Jesus; and with his relatives. There were 120 people. 

Peter speaks. First, he recounts the death of Judas, then the necessity of electing a replacement from among Jesus’ disciples. Two candidates were presented. Matthias won the election. According to Luke, the Jewish summer harvest feast called “Pentecost” was at hand. “Pentecost” is a Greek word meaning “fiftieth,” so named because it was the 50th day after Passover. It was on this harvest feast that Luke places the first Christian harvest. The event is described in our first reading.

The followers of Jesus were together in one place. There was the sound of a mighty, rushing wind filling the house where they gathered. Tongues of fire rested on all present. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, they began to speak in languages previously unknown to them. It is called “the gift of tongues” (or languages). Pentecost was one of the three great Jewish pilgrimage festivals. Pious Jews from throughout the Mediterranean world were in Jerusalem for the occasion. The followers of Jesus must have exited the house, causing a commotion at their chattering the praises of God in unknown languages. 

Luke gives a list of the countries and nationalities of Jews and others present in Jerusalem. For him, this expresses the universality of the Church. It was from these various ethnic peoples that 3,000 were converted to Christ by means of a long homily, in which Peter detailed the history of salvation. By quotes from the Old Testament, Peter (actually Luke) demonstrates how all of this was carefully planned by God long ago, and was fulfilled in Jesus. Three thousand were baptized. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults was not yet developed. We must not forget that the authors of the New Testament were thoroughly acquainted with the Old Testament. Their writings were developed from decades of Christian teaching, preaching and interpretation of the Old Testament. What could Luke have had in mind when he described the first Christian harvest, when all those nationalities in their own language understood the apostles speaking in tongues with a Galilean accent? The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. There, the Lord himself stopped the building of the tower of pride by confusing their languages so that none understood each other. At the first Christian Pentecost, the punishment of the Tower of Babel is reversed in favor of a universal, unified Church. “Tongue of fire” is an Old Testament term (See Isaiah 5:24). The use of fire to prepare for the Lord’s word is seen in Isaiah 6:6-7 — the cleansing of Isaiah’s lips for his mission. The relationship between wind (breath) and fire is established in Isaiah 33:11. 

Now, let us turn to an expression different from the above to proclaim the presence and mission of the Holy Spirit in the Church. From Luke’s Acts of Apostles we turn to the Gospel of John. The scene is placed by John on the evening of the resurrection of Jesus. Earlier that day, Jesus had appeared to Mary of Magdala. She is appointed an apostle (meaning “one who is sent”) to the apostles; Jesus entrusts her to report to them that he is ascending “to My Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She fulfills her mission. That very evening Jesus returns, entering the room where the disciples are hiding out of fear of arrest as accomplices to a man who was lynched as a would-be king. Suddenly, Jesus stood among them, and said, “Shalom alechem!” (Peace be with you.) A much-needed greeting to a group scared out of their wits, and coming from someone who had died a horrible death and was buried. With another Shalom, Jesus arrives at the climactic moment of this first and very brief post-resurrection visit.

He states his credentials as ambassador from his Father and appoints them to be his ambassadors, “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” Theirs will be God’s work. He breathes over them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven. Whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” hhen they objected to him proclaiming forgiveness of a man’s sins, Jesus’ critics had proclaimed that only God can forgive sins (See Mark 2:5-10). Now, he extends that divine power to mere humans. What is the symbolism of Jesus breathing on his disciples while bestowing the Holy Spirit? The word for “spirit” in Hebrew, Greek and Latin also means breath, perhaps for us a more meaningful symbolism than a dove for the Holy Spirit. As we did in the comments above on the formation of Luke’s narrative, we can also look for Old Testament influence on John’s narrative. The first passage that comes to mind is Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit (wind, breath) of God was moving over the face of the waters.” It was the initiation of the creation of life. In Genesis 2:7, God creates the first human, “and breathed into his nostrils the breath (spirit) of life.” Finally, Ezekiel 37:1-10 includes the vision of the valley of dry bones. As the breath (spirit) of the Lord comes upon them, with a great rattling sound they assemble into new life. Note how Luke and John, though in very different ways, agree on the empowerment through the Holy Spirit for forgiveness of sins (See Luke 24:47; Acts 2:33, 38; John 20:22-23).