The Feast of Pentecost occurs on the same day as the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which they call today Shavuot. This is no mistake. Allowing for various adjustments to the calendars over the years Easter occurs on the Jewish feast of Passover and their Feast of Weeks takes place fifty days later. Pentecost literally meaning fifty days also occurs fifty days after Easter and therefore on the same day as the Feast of Weeks.
Passover was a feast established to commemorate the day that God smote down the first born sons of the Egyptians and passed over the homes of the Israelites leading to their escape from slavery. Easter, its direct counterpart, commemorates our release from a much deeper and more insidious form of slavery, namely slavery to sin.
The Feast of Weeks was established to commemorate the day when God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and thus established the Covenant between God and Man.
However, on Pentecost Day God promulgates his new Law of Love consisting of the single commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He writes this new law of love on the hearts of men through the outpouring of his Holy Spirit. In this way he establishes what we call the New Covenant.
The Feast of Weeks was also a harvest festival and we can see how there is a further parallel since that was the day chosen by God to begin the vast harvest of souls that was to come about through the preaching of the Apostles.
It is interesting to note these parallels and to see how these feasts have come into being because in this way we achieve a greater understanding of their significance. Actually in our readings today we see two outpourings of the Spirit. The first is recorded in the Gospel of John and the second in the account of Pentecost Day in the Acts of the Apostles.
In John’s Gospel Jesus comes into the room where the Apostles were hiding from the Jews and gives them the gift of peace. He breathes on them and in this way pours out on them the Holy Spirit and then gives them the gift of forgiveness.
These two gifts of peace and forgiveness are still being imparted to mankind through the work of the Church. Despite a few errors over the years, such as the Crusades, the Church has always preached the message of peace. It has constantly been involved in peace negotiations and does everything it can to prevent nations going to war because of its deep awareness of the great harm caused by armed conflict.
Of course, the pursuit of peace is deeper that merely trying to avoid war. What the Church really wants is for the spirit of peace to pervade the hearts of everyone in the world, so that each person can experience peace in all its fullness.
Hand in hand with its work for peace the Church has always carried on the ministry of forgiveness particularly through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This ministry is absolutely essential to the life of the Church. It constantly goes on in private with priests forever mediating God’s forgiveness through this wonderful healing sacrament.
It is significant that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit by Jesus on the Apostles, as recorded by John, is by means of breathing on them. Breath means life and by breathing on them Jesus gives them new life, he gives them his Spirit. This is reminiscent of God breathing life into the nostrils of Adam, the first man. Here Jesus breathes forth the Spirit and gives the Apostles a completely new and extra dimension to life.
The disciples are also given authority; they are given the power to bind and loose, to forgive or retain sins. We have seen how forgiveness is an essential part of the ministry of the Church but you might ask why they have been given the power to retain sins. From one point of view this is because those ministering the Sacrament of Reconciliation need to be sure that there is true contrition for sin and when this is not present then they are not yet in a position to release the person from their sins.
But also it is part and parcel of the Jewish habit of putting two opposites together; according to them if you can forgive then logically you can also not forgive. They cannot think of one without the other. But clearly the Church’s principal job is to mediate God’s forgiveness and only rarely to retain sins. One other thing to notice in the Gospel reading was that Jesus showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. This is surely to show them that it is he the Risen Christ the same one who died on the Cross.
But it is also to help them realise that they too will acquire those self-same wounds. Jesus wants them to know that their preaching of the Gospel will lead them to suffering but also to glory and that they should not be afraid of this for it is part and parcel of a Christian life well lived.
The account of Pentecost Day is given in the First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We all know the details of the story very well indeed. We know about the great noise of the wind; we know about the tongues of flame; and we know about the many languages. It certainly is an arresting story and must have been an extraordinary thing to have been present at.
However, we should not spend overmuch time on the details of the actual event but instead focus on the meaning of what happened on that great day. What all these sounds and flames and tongues signified was that God was making himself manifest in a most profound way. He was showing to the people just how powerful the Holy Spirit really was and how he was able to transform people’s lives in a most incredible way.
What God was doing on that first Pentecost Day was inaugurating the Church and giving it a huge push start on it tremendous mission to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. He was impelling the disciples to leave that secret room and to go out fearlessly to the whole world.
In the readings for the Vigil mass there is an account of the confusion of tongues that arose as a result of the building of the Tower of Babel. What we see here on the first Pentecost is the exact opposite of Babel. Here we find that everyone hears the Gospel preached to them in their own language. This is something important. The Gospel is never foreign; each person is able to understand it in their own language. The Gospel is therefore intimate and familiar to everyone in the world. This great outpouring of the Spirit is a sign that one day every human being will be united under God and that we will all be part of one Kingdom, proclaiming one faith and praising God in one language, the language of heaven.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket