Solemnity of Pentecost



Solemnity of Pentecost

First Reading: Acts 2:1-11; Response: Psalm 14:1, 24, 26-30, 31, 34; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; Gospel: John 20:19-23

The narrative of the first Christian Pentecost is today’s first reading. Luke begins, “When the time of Pentecost was fulfilled.” What does this mean? The English word Pentecost is derived from the Greek word meaning fiftieth. The Greek name came into use among Greek-speaking Christians for the Jewish Feast of Shavuoth, the Feast of Weeks. This was also the Summer harvest feast (wheat) coming midway between Passover in the Spring and Tents in the Fall. The Jews counted seven weeks, that is, forty-nine days, from Passover. The fiftieth day was the Pentecoste day. In last week’s first reading, Jesus continued to teach his disciples for forty days after his resurrection. Then his ascension. One hundred twenty disciples then gathered, “with Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers,” for nine (novena, from Latin novem = nine) days of prayer awaiting the Holy Spirit. At the end of that novena, forty-nine days had passed since Passover. Luke places the descent of the Holy Spirit on the next day, the fiftieth day. It was fitting that the first Christian harvest, 3,000 converts, occur on the Jewish harvest feast.

Action begins with a strong wind filling the house. The wind is a symbol of the Holy Spirit because in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin the word spirit is the same word for wind, breath. Consider Job 32:8, “The spirit of a man (is) the breath of the Almighty. Tongues of fire rested on all or over all. Connection between the breath of God and fire is established in Isaiah 33:11, “Your breath is a fire . . . .” The ‘tongues’ of fire are a symbol of the gift of tongues or languages in which the gathered began to speak. Luke is writing in Greek. The Greek word for tongue is also the word for language. Pentecost was not only a harvest celebration for Jews, it was also one of the three annual pilgrimage feasts. Luke notes, “There were devout Jews from all nations under heaven in Jerusalem.” The apostles were publicly speaking in tongues, astounding the international crowd because they individually understood what the apostles were proclaiming in various languages unknown to them (the crowd). Yet they knew they were Galileans because of their accent. See Matthew 26:73.

Psalm 104 is an appropriate response to the first reading. Note the people’s response echoing verse 30 of the psalm, “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” The people joyfully shout this four times. In the second set of verses we read, “If you take away their breath, they return to dust. When you sent forth your Spirit, they are created . . . .” This is an example of parallelism in Hebrew poetry — two words with the same meaning. Here: breath and spirit. It is a reference to Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed man of dust . . ., and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Job 33:4, ”The breath (spirit) of the Almighty gives me life.” Also Ezekiel 37:5-10 shows a play between the words breath, wind, spirit with the same meaning.

The second reading is part of Paul’s introduction to a discussion of divine gifts, including the gift of tongues. These gifts reveal the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Christian community. Even though the gifts differ from each other, they all come from the same Spirit. The reading is full of references to the Holy Spirit, five times in a few lines. It is Paul’s call for unity in a Christian community — all having the same Spirit, forming one body in Christ. A mark of a true Christian, says Paul, is the profession of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” but no one can proclaim this except through the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul calls for equality among Christians, an end to racism, “Jew or Greek, slave or free, we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”

John’s narrative celebrating the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church is very different from what we heard in today’s reading from Acts. No forty days, no nine-day novena, no violent wind, no gift of tongues, no harvest of souls. In John’s gospel it is Sunday evening, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciples were hiding behind locked doors out of fear of arrest because they had been companions of Jesus. Suddenly he stood among them. Laws of Physics no longer applied. He greeted them, “Shalom alachem,” (Peace be with you.) This greeting was to assure a group fearing for their lives. He showed them the wounds of the crucifixion. They need no further proof that he was the real Jesus. In Luke’s gospel he proved his reality by eating a piece of broiled fish in their presence. After another “Shalom,” he commissioned them for their future work. “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” Now the reason for selection of this gospel for today’s liturgy. He breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit (Breath).” How different from Luke’s Pentecost in Acts of Apostles!

Frequently in the New Testament there is Old Testament background. The same in this episode.

We see a reflection of Genesis 1:2, where the Spirit (Breath) of God was fanning (hovering) over the waters of chaos, and creation began. There is also Ezekiel 37, where the Spirit (Breath) of God brings life to the assembled dry bones. The breath of Jesus is the life-giving Breath of God, the Holy Spirit. We speak of the Church being born from the open side of Jesus on the cross. What was born on the cross is now brought to life, and with a mission. “Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven.” What about the unrepentant? “Whose sins you shall retain they are retained.” But only for a time. See 1 Corinthians 5:5. What can be said about Luke’s Pentecost compared with John’s Sunday evening narrative? Shall we go with the young man from Chicago who instructed this writer as follows? “They got the first taste of the Holy Spirit on Sunday evening in John, but the full meal fifty days later in Luke.” Thus the flawed idea that the gospels are a history book rather than a catechism. Both authors are influenced by the Old Testament, but they have different ways of proclaiming the presence of the Holy Spirit. Attempts to make them agree with each other is a disservice to the human authors and the Divine Author whom they celebrate.