Ten days have gone by since the Ascension. Fifty days have now passed since Easter. Now we celebrate Pentecost.
The word “Pentecost” literally means “fiftieth” — in this context, fifty days since the resurrection of the Lord. The feast has its origins in the life of Israel, marking the conclusion of the Jewish Festival of Weeks (seven weeks plus one day).
Originally, the feast commemorated the covenant with Noah. In that covenant, all people of the earth have a share (Gen 9:9-10). Eventually the feast came to be associated with the giving of the law on Sinai.
The Christian celebration commemorates the outpouring of the Spirit promised by Jesus. The presence of the Spirit in and among the disciples joins them together as the church, the body of Christ; hence the day is also remembered as the birthday of the church.
Jesus promised to be with his disciples always. He does this in a very personal and close way. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in each of the baptized. He is present in a real and powerful way to assist us in his mission of life.
The Gospel account for the liturgy today recalls the pouring out of the Spirit as Jesus breathes on the disciples. This he does after first offering them the greeting of peace. The Spirit dwelling in and among them imparts the ability and the responsibility to forgive, and to show mercy, as Jesus tells them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
The reading from the Acts of the Apostles recalls the day of Pentecost. Peoples from many foreign lands and nations are in Jerusalem for the feast. They are separated from one another because of language. The disciples, even though they have experienced the risen Lord, are still timid and to an extent fearful. Jesus has prepared them for mission, but at this point they have not acted nor gone forth.
This rapidly and dramatically changes after Pentecost. While they are gathered in one place, the Spirit descends. The language used is similar to the descriptions of the Old Testament theophanies. The extraordinary manifestations in nature point to the divine presence. Driving wind and tongues of fire signify something great is happening and that God is indeed present.
After the Spirit descends upon them, the Apostles and disciples all begin to speak in different tongues. Not only that, but the peoples gathered from the different nations can all hear with understanding, despite the fact that they do not share the same language. The proclamation of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection begins, and many people come to share the life he offers because of it.
Sometimes the question arises as to the difference before and after Pentecost with regard to the Spirit’s presence. Wasn’t the Spirit present before in the life of Israel? Wasn’t the Spirit present in the creation of the world? If the Spirit was present then, how is it different after Pentecost?
I recently read a response to this question that used the Aswan Dam in Egypt as an analogy. The dam project was first announced by President Nasser in 1953. The dam was to be located at the upper region of the Nile, the source of water for the region below the dam site. This water supported the life and livelihood of many in that particular region.
During the almost 20 years of construction, provision was made so that the water would still flow. When the dam was completed, the water flowed through its huge turbines. These turbines generated electricity, and the life and livelihood supported by the Nile was expanded exponentially. The water had flowed throughout the entire project, but once the dam was in place, the water’s benefits were extended more widely and more fully.
Jesus sends his Spirit down upon the disciples and establishes his church. The life-giving Spirit now goes out to all the world. It is no longer confined to the life of Israel, but is shared among all people who believe. The mission of Jesus is entrusted to the Apostles and the Church. This mission of announcing, proclaiming and living the Gospel continues to this day.
We all share in this mission. The presence of the Spirit, whom we receive at baptism, is the same Spirit in which we are sealed or confirmed for mission. We all have a responsibility for the mission together.
The Spirit gives us gifts that help us carry forth the mission together and in ourselves. The gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord help us to live the proclamation — not only in word but in action, thought and desire.
As we use these gifts to be formed by the Spirit, like clay in the hands of a potter, the fruits of the Spirit will grow and become characteristics of our lives: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity. Jesus’ gift of the Spirit is a gift for life, not just for ourselves but for anyone with whom we interact.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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