In the account of the Day of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles we note that there are a lot of strange things happening. There was the very loud sound of a powerful wind, then there were what seemed like tongues of fire descending on the heads of the disciples and finally they found that they had received the ability to speak foreign languages. These are all the kinds of things that accompany a decisive intervention of God. You will recall that at the Transfiguration a blinding light surrounded Jesus and Moses and Elijah appeared. The technical word is Theophany which means a spectacular and supernatural manifestation of God.
What we are meant to understand, therefore, is the importance of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. It marks the decisive transformation of the group of followers of Jesus into the Church with its mission to Evangelise the world. They turn from a passive band of followers of Jesus into an active group of Evangelisers. Up till now their role has been to listen, to observe and to follow Jesus. But now their task is to explain the Gospel, to perform miracles, to celebrate the sacraments and to travel far and wide to make Christ known to the world.
Up to this point the twelve have been bumbling around in the dark; they have frequently misunderstood Jesus and worst of all they deserted him in his hour of need. But here on Pentecost Day they are transformed from disciples into Apostles, from followers into leaders, from novices into Evangelists.
This is a radical turn-around and it has not been something they have done by themselves. It is the result of the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. They have been seized with power from on high. They have been transformed through the agency of God himself. They now have a sacred mission and they have been turned from helpless inward-looking creatures into powerful ambassadors for Christ.
It is interesting to note that the noise of what seemed like a wind was so loud that it attracted a crowd. This the reason the devout men from all over the world gathered in the street before the house. Presumably, the Holy Spirit precisely wanted to attract these people from across the Empire so that the Word of God could be spread to all corners of the known world. Each one of these travellers would take back to his own home this newly discovered faith and quite quickly cells of Christians would spring up in many counties simultaneously.
Anyone who has been to a Pentecostal Church will have heard people speaking in tongues. This is a form of prayer which is not unknown in the Catholic Church but it is not at all common in our regular worship. It is a form of ecstatic prayer in which the person involved seems to be speaking an unintelligible language. Some people think that this is what the Apostles were doing on that extraordinary day, but it cannot be so since we are definitely told that the people present each heard them speaking their own native language and that it was clearly understood what they were talking about.
In the Vigil Mass of Pentecost the first reading is an account of the Tower of Babel, the Biblical story which provides what was thought to be the reason behind the great confusion of the languages of the people of the world. There has been a long tradition in the Church which sees the Feast of Pentecost as being the very opposite of what happened at Babel. Although mankind is not given one new actual language at Pentecost, man is given one new way of understanding God. The discord between the tribes and races that occurred at Babel is now healed and the peoples of the Earth are now able to discover a new unity through faith in Jesus Christ. It is this new faith that will gradually draw humanity together so that on the Last Day we can all speak with one faith and with one voice proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.
We should note that the account of the Day of Pentecost is not found in the Gospels but only in the Acts of the Apostles. Nevertheless, John gives us an account of Jesus imparting the Spirit to his disciples. He tells us that on the day of the Resurrection Jesus appeared in the evening to the disciples who were gathered in the Upper Room. He breathed on them and said ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ and gave them the power to forgive sins. Like the other Evangelists John does not give us an actual account of Pentecost but he wants to convey to us that Jesus did impart his spirit to the disciples.
John is also underlining that the Spirit cleanses us from sin. And one can understand that being cleansed of sin the disciples would enjoy a new and deep-seated peace. They would experience the joy that comes to all Christian believers when their sins are forgiven them. And they would feel a new and stronger unity with each other.
The transformation that occurred in these followers of Jesus at Pentecost is truly remarkable. Take Peter for example, not so long before when he was questioned by the servant-girl he was too afraid to admit that he even knew Jesus. Yet, despite being a practically illiterate person here he is fearlessly proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to a group of highly educated foreigners.
Each one of us has experienced our own Pentecost; that is what our reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation was all about. It was the Holy Spirit being poured out upon us in that wonderful sacrament. Our Confirmation effectively meant our being transformed from passive disciples, mere children in religious terms, into active Apostles and Evangelisers. Being filled with the Spirit is not sufficient though to make us be effective in this new role. Like the Apostles we have to step outside the door. We have to engage with those around us. We have to actually speak about Christ and his Gospel.
Being filled with the Spirit does not take away our free will. The initiative is still left with us. We have to step outside the door. We have to make the choice to open our mouths and speak words of salvation to our brothers and sisters living around us. When we do this the Holy Spirit will ensure that we have the right words and that these beautiful words will fall on fertile soil.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket