The Solemnity of Pentecost, Year A



The Solemnity of Pentecost, Year A

First Reading: Acts 2:1-11; Response: Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; Gospel: John 20:19-23

In the first reading, Luke begins, “When the day of Pentecost was fulfilled.” Pentecost means 50th. It was the Greek term for the Jewish feast called Shavuoth, meaning weeks. It was called the Feast of Weeks because there were seven weeks, or 49 days, between the Spring offering of the first sheaf of the newly harvested barley crop during Passover time and the beginning of the wheat harvest. The latter was celebrated on the first day after the seven weeks were completed, that is, on the 50th or pentecoste day. The Jewish feast had nothing to do with Christianity until the Christian community in Jerusalem experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day after the seven weeks were completed. Thus, according to Luke’s theology, he appropriately chose the celebration of the wheat harvest as the day of the first harvesting of new Christians. When we say that this was Luke’s appropriate choice because Pentecost was a harvest feast, we must be made aware that Luke’s narrative celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit is not the only way to describe the giving of the Holy Spirit – as we shall see in today’s gospel reading.

Luke’s Acts of Apostles is a continuation of his gospel. The gospel and his Acts of Apostles were written decades after the events they purport to describe, and not by original ear- and eyewitness.

Authors of our gospels rely not only on oral and written traditions handed down over 40-70 years. They are also influenced by their knowledge of the Old Testament to form the catechesis of events of Jesus’ life and ministry and what followed his earthly life. What may have influenced Luke in the composition of his story of the first Christian Pentecost? The story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. That story describes how all humankind spoke one language until their arrogance and pride moved God to “confuse their language, so that one will not understand what the other says.” Luke reverses the Tower of Babel narrative in his Pentecost story as he describes how “devout people from every nation under heaven” understood the apostles speaking in their own tongue (languages).

The “mighty wind and tongues as of fire” in Luke’s Pentecost narrative echo the visual dynamics accompanying the giving of the Old Covenant to Moses on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19. It is the creation of Israel as a nation. Luke’s chosen expressions are mild compared to those at Mt. Sinai. At Sinai: smoke, fire, earthquake, trumpet blasts. There, the Lord God comes down upon the mountain in fire. To mark the giving of the New Covenant and the creation of the Christian community, the Lord God, the Holy Spirit, also comes down in fire. We know that Luke also has in mind the fourth-century-B.C. prophet Joel, whom he quotes at length in the homily he attributes to Simon Peter immediately after the infusion of the Holy Spirit. The words Luke quotes from Joel begin, “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh … in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”

Psalm 104 is a creation hymn inviting praise from all God’s creatures. The people respond with verse 30 of the psalm, “Lord, send out you Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.” This is precisely what Jesus envisioned when he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses … to the end of the earth.” In the second reading, St. Paul instructs his Corinthian Christians how the gifts or charisms of the Holy Spirit work within a Christian community. They do not work in dispute – but in unity, like the human body. By appealing to the fact that all the different charisms come from the same Spirit, he tries to form a united community made up of different racial origins and different social statuses.

In John’s gospel ,we hear a very different narrative than we heard in the first reading from Luke’s Acts of Apostles. Both celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Christian community. In Luke, it happens on the 50th day after the resurrection of Jesus. In John, it is on the evening of the day of the resurrection, during the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the 11. They were hiding out of fear of arrest by religious or Roman authorities as accomplices of a crucified would-be king. Jesus suddenly stood among them in their hiding place, even though the doors were closed and bolted. His greeting: Shalom alechem! (Peace be with you!) He displayed to them the wounds in his hands and side. The opening of Jesus’ side with a soldier’s lance is noted only in the Gospel of John. Blood and water issued from his side. They are the same elements accompanying the birth of a human being. Therefore, one can understand this as the birth of the Church – but not yet breathing. Jesus is about to remedy that limitation. John then notes the joy of the disciples to which Jesus responds with a second Shalom alechem!

Jesus states his credentials. “As the Father has sent me, so do I send you.” The climactic moment is at hand. “When he had said this, he breathed on them, and he said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The influence of the Old Testament on Luke’s Pentecost narrative was noted above. The same must be said for John’s narrative. The word breathed is a key word. Recall that, on the cross from which the Church was born, the identity of the Crucified One was printed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Now, when the Church is brought to life, we can note that, in those three languages, the word breath and the word spirit are the same word. Therefore, for Old Testament background in the composition of this narrative, we must look for stories of life-giving breath or spirit. 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 (spirit) of life, and the man became a living being.” Jesus does the same as he breathes into the gathered disciples the Holy Breath (Spirit). They represent the Church. The Christian community has become a living being. Another story of life-giving breath is the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. The Lord commands Ezekiel to breathe over them, “and the spirit (breath) came into them, and they lived.”