The Day of Pentecost

Pentecost (pentêcostê ‘fiftieth’) is the Greek name for the ancient Israelite festival Shavuot (‘weeks’) marking the end of the harvest season fifty days, or a ‘week of weeks’, after its beginning at Pesach (Passover). Also known as the Day of First Fruits [Nb 28.26], Pentecost, like Passover, is an occasion of pilgrimage to Jerusalem; probably by the time of Christ it had also come to commemorate the giving of Torah to Moses [Ex 19] and thus the constitution of Israel as a holy nation.

The Christian feast of Pentecost is so called because the powerful experience of the Holy Spirit’s advent as recorded in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles took place at this time. Though sometimes casually called ‘the birthday of the Church’, it more precisely marks a renewal and radical expansion of the ekklêsía (the solemn assembly of those in covenant relationship with the Lord) already established in Israel: thus St Peter can apply the same terms used of Israel to the followers of Christ, who are themselves then known as the ekklêsía: living stones, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s people. And after his experience in the house of Cornelius [Ac 10], St Peter comes to know that the ekklêsía is meant ultimately to encompass ‘even the Gentiles’, upon whom the Holy Spirit fell.

Thus Christians see the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost as the fulfillment of not only the divine promise to reanimate Israel after its exile and dissolution [Ek 11, 37], to regrow the nation from the root-stock of Jesse (via the scion whom Christians readily identify as Christ, Himself the first-fruits [1Co 15]), but also of the promise to pour out the Spirit upon all flesh [ Jl 2, quoted in Ac 2], and of Moses’s desire that all should be prophets [Nb 11]. It is the fulfillment of Christ’s promises [ Jn 14–16] to send ‘another Advocate’ so that the power once concentrated in His single human Body could be shared more broadly with His differentiated human Body, the Church, via His Eucharistic Body, all animated by the same Spirit. And this sharing makes us one: one with one another in an undoing of Babel, not by the eradication but by the accommodation of difference – divers languages and peoples, varieties of the Spirit’s gifts [Ep 4.8; Hb 2.4] and a whole list of her fruits [1Co 12; Ga 5.22] – one with the Lord in the Spirit’s gathering up of all into the Trinitarian communion of love. Pentecost is ultimately nothing less than the renewal of all creation by the Spirit who is the agent of that creation [Gn 1; Ps 33], its structure and sustainer [Ps 104.30; Ws 1.7].

Thus Pentecost is one of the primary occasions on which Holy Baptism – the sacrament of new birth, of re-creation, of adoption and incorporation into the Church and thus of the Church’s own renewal and propagation – is administered. The Spirit’s advent and activity in the Scriptures are played out again in the traditional rites and ceremonies: a vigil culminates the season of expectation and prayer (the original novena) for the coming of the Spirit between Ascension and Pentecost, and of prayers for the candidates for baptism; breathing upon, dividing, and casting the waters in the traditional blessing of the font recalls the movement of the Spirit in creation and the four rivers of Paradise; breathing upon the candidates continues Christ’s bestowal of the Spirit upon His apostles [ Jn 20.22]; anointing and laying on hands (the latter part of the now separated rite of Confirmation) are typical means and signs of imparting the Spirit of God; even flame, in the form of a candle, is given to the newly baptized. These show that Baptism reïterates in microcosm the fruition [Rm 8.23] of God’s eternal presence and purposes – planted in the unfathomable depths of heaven and earth and the human heart [1Co 2; Ep 3.5–11; Cl 1.25–27], quickened in Christ (Himself conceived by the Spirit and proclaimed [Rm 1.4] beloved of God by the same Spirit at His own baptism), and harvested by the Spirit – once writ large in Christ’s person and ministry and that first Christian Pentecost.

We are told that the Father will give the Spirit to those who ask [Lk 11.13], and that Christ gives the Spirit without measure [ Jn 3.34]. And when the Spirit is bestowed, she dwells within the believer, who becomes her very temple [1Co 3.16, 6.19] where the Spirit writes the ‘letter of Christ’ upon human hearts [2Co 3] and pours God’s love into those same hearts [Rm 5.5] in order to flow out of them like a river of living water [ Jn 7]. The Spirit bears witness that we, like and in Christ, are children and heirs of God [Rm 8], and gives us power to testify in turn to the love of God [Ac 1.8]. The Spirit is the one in whom we pray – who prays in and for us [Rm 8; 1Co 2], searching even the depths of God – and the very breath of life.

Come, holy Spirit:
Fill the hearts of your faithful people:
and light the fire of your love in them.