Pentecost Sunday

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 24; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

“When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled,” thus Luke begins his stirring narrative celebrating the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The “day of Pentecost” (meaning “50th) is the Greek term for the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuoth), seven weeks, 49 days. The 50th day, Pentecoste, was so named because it fell on the 50th day after the ceremony of offering a sheaf of the newly harvested barley crop in the Spring during Passover time. Such was the original meaning; but since the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church happened on that day, at least according to Luke’s theology, early Christians reinterpreted the meaning of this day in terms of Luke’s narrative in Acts 2:1-11. The use of the above clause, “at least according to Luke’s theology,” is a reminder that Luke’s narrative of the “event” of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church is not the only narrative celebrating this event. John has his own version, as we shall see in the comments on today’s gospel below.

Our gospels (keeping in mind that Acts of Apostles is a continuation of Luke’s gospel) were written decades after the event they purport to narrate, and not by original eye and ear witnesses. The authors therefore have to rely not only on traditions handed down over 40-65 years, but also use pertinent parts of the Old Testament to form their catechesis of the events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry, and what follows. What Old Testament narratives influenced Luke’s composition of the Pentecost experience? The liturgy for the Vigil of Pentecost answers with selections for first readings. The first is The Tower of Babel, Gen. 11:1-9, describing how all humankind spoke one language until their arrogance and pride moved God to “confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says.” Luke’s Pentecost reverses the Tower of Babel, when “devout people from every nation under heaven,” understood the apostles speaking in their own language. The “mighty wind and tongues of fire” in Luke’s Pentecost echo the Sinai experience of the Israelites at the giving of the Sinai Covenant to Moses. Luke’s expressions are mild compared to Sinai — smoke, fire, trumpet blasts, earthquake. There the Lord God comes down upon the mountain in fire. To mark the New Covenant, the Lord God — the Holy Spirit — also comes down in fire. We know that Luke has in mind an oracle of the Prophet Joel, (early 4th century B.C.), because he quotes Joel at length in the homily he attributes to Simon Peter immediately after the Pentecost event. The oracle begins, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh . . . in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” Both Sinai and Joel are first-reading selections for the Vigil of Pentecost.

The Responsorial Psalm 104 is a creation hymn with accompanying praise of the Creator. The people’s response summarizes the Psalm with a plea from the Psalmist, “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” That is what the Christian movement was designed to do — to renew the face of the earth. We know not only from Acts of Apostles but also from the history of early Christianity how “the Way” as it was called, spread like wildfire throughout the Mediterranean world. In the second reading Paul establishes rules by which the Christian community can judge authenticity of members of the community who claim special gifts. First rule: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Immediately thereafter Paul deals with problems in his Corinthian ‘parish,’ clashes between various gifts attributed to the Holy Spirit, racial divisions and divisions caused by status in society.

The Gospel of John is very different from Luke’s Acts of Apostles in celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It is the day of the Resurrection, not the day of Pentecost, that is, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus. This is Jesus’ first post-resurrection appearance to his male disciples. We can assume they were the 11 apostles. They are hiding out of fear of arrest by religious and Roman authorities as adherents of an executed would-be king. Jesus suddenly stands among them and greets them, “Shalom alachem! (Peace be with you!) An appropriate opening to those who had not distinguished themselves during his Passion. He showed them his hands and his side. Only in John’s gospel does a soldier pierce Jesus’ side causing blood and water to flow. It was the birthday of the Church, born with the same elements present in human birth. The baby is born but not yet breathing. Jesus is about to bring the baby to life. John notes the joy of the disciples, to which Jesus responds with a second Shalom. Jesus states his credentials to do what he is about to do. “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” But they need credentials, empowerment. “When he had said this, he breathed upon them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The influence of the Old Testament on Luke’s composition of the Pentecost event was noted above. The same influence happens in John’s story. The word “breathed” is a key word. Recall that on the cross, where the Church was born, the identity of the crucified One was given in Hebrew, Greek, Latin. Now when the Church is brought to life we can note that the two words breath and spirit are the same word in those three languages respectively. Therefore, for Old Testament background in John’s mind in the composition of this narrative we must look for stories of life-giving breath. The first one: Genesis 2:7, “The Lord God formed the man out of dust (clay) from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Jesus does the same as he breathes into the still lifeless Church the breath of life, the Holy Spirit, (the Holy Breath). What God the Father did in Genesis, God the Son does in John’s gospel. Another story of life-giving breath is the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. The prophet stood by as the bones in the dry valley assembled themselves, “but there was no breath in them.” The Lord commanded Ezekiel to breathe over them, “and the breath (the spirit) came into them, and they lived.”