Pentecost Sunday: Are Your Eyes Looking Toward the Holy Spirit?

SCRIPTURES & ART: Today’s readings are illustrated by the great Spanish painter, El Greco (1541-1614).

El Greco, “Pentecost,” ca. 1600
El Greco, “Pentecost,” ca. 1600 (photo: Public Domain)

Next to Easter and Christmas, Pentecost is the Church’s most important feast. That’s true not just for the liturgical calendar, but for our spiritual lives. Christmas marks Christ’s coming in the flesh, “for us and for our salvation.” Easter marks Christ’s triumph over sin and death — none of us must be damned unless we freely want to be. Pentecost marks Christ’s sending of his Spirit to enable his Church to carry on his work of salvation — of turning people from sin and to God — until he “comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”

Liturgically, Pentecost closes the Easter season. Seven was a number of perfection in ancient Israel (7x7=49). Perfected perfection plus one: “the joy of Easter” reaches its apex.

Also liturgically, it is difficult to predict what Gospel you might hear today. Because of the liturgical importance of Pentecost it — like Easter — has a fully developed Vigil, which is all-too-often truncated at “Saturday evening Mass.” Parishes should consider its celebration in its fullness. (See here and here.) My commentary is based on Pentecost Mass “during the day,” since that Mass incorporates the readings that will be heard on Pentecost Sunday morning.

The event of Pentecost does not appear in the Gospels. Like the Ascension, Luke details it in the Acts of the Apostles, today’s first reading (2:1-11). The Gospels often speak of Jesus’ intention to send his Spirit upon the Apostles, an especially prominent theme in John’s Last Supper discourse (e.g. John 16:1-15). Today’s Gospel, however, reinforces the linkage between Easter and Pentecost: it is from John who relates how, on Easter Sunday night, Jesus appeared to his Apostles and conferred the Holy Spirit on them (John 20:19-23).

The details of Pentecost are found in Acts. Jesus’ followers are “all in one place together.” A powerful wind shakes the house, fire appears above them, divides, and rests on each of them. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” and began to speak of Christ. They burst into the streets and start evangelizing, declaring the “mighty acts of God.”

Jesus’s followers are where he told them to be — in Jerusalem, waiting and praying. In his time (not one preannounced to the disciples) the Holy Spirit descends, in power. Like the Father (as we saw in last Sunday’s art), the Spirit is not seen, except in the symbol of fire: remember, only Jesus reveals the unseen God to us. But the Spirit’s power is felt. Jesus’ followers now begin to discharge the commission he gave them nine days ago to “go and teach all nations,” symbolically represented by the pilgrims gathered from around the Mediterranean basin in Jerusalem for what likely was the Jewish feast of Pentecost — the celebration of Shavuot — which was a major celebration which observant Jews in antiquity sought to celebrate in the Holy City. The offspring of Christians now talking to “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia” will one day be talking to Polynesians, indigenous Americans, and Chinese, inhabitants of the Slavic lands, Japan and Africa.

The Gospel takes us back to Easter Sunday evening, when Jesus first appears to all his Apostles (minus St. Thomas) at once. In that pericope, he breathes on them and commands them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” specifically in connection with the forgiveness or retention of sins. Today’s Gospel is the Scriptural warrant for the sacrament of Penance: Jesus specifically charged his Apostles with the task of forgiving sins. If you are truly sorry for your sins, you necessarily want to address them the way Jesus said to. 

So when did the Holy Spirit come? At Easter? Today? 

We could even say on Good Friday. When Matthew (27:52) speaks of the raising of the dead after Jesus’ death, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit flows into the world out of the pierced heart of Christ, but we time-bound creatures need to parcel up when things happen in God’s eternity.

So, yes, the Holy Spirit is given for the forgiveness of sins — the key thing salvation is about and what Jesus before the Ascension told his Apostles to preach (“repentance to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem” — Luke 24:47). Today’s Gospel addresses the institution of the sacrament of Penance. Today, on Pentecost, the Spirit is given to empower Christians to bear witness to God before the world with power, the institution of the sacrament of Confirmation. All the sacraments “work” because the Holy Spirit works in them.

Today’s First Reading is illustrated by the great Spanish painter, El Greco (1541-1614). As his name indicates, he was a Greek (birth name Domenikos Theotokopoulos), but the vast majority of his work took place in Spain. Today’s oil painting hangs in Spain’s Prado Museum and was painted about 1600 as part of an altarpiece for a Madrid seminary.

Anybody who has ever looked at the work of El Greco knows he has a style uniquely his own: he cannot be pigeonholed into traditional art categories. Perhaps it is partially because, as a Greek, he combined Eastern icon with Western techniques in his religious art. But it is also because of the artist’s unique “vision” — figures in El Greco paintings clearly belong to El Greco, in part because of their elongated, willowy, candle-like bodies reaching upwards. 

In Eastern icons, bodies are never really just “represented” as if they were a painted photograph. Bodies are spiritualized. El Greco does something of that in his own, inimitable way.

The Holy Spirit dominates this painting, in the form of a dove, at the top. He is the source of light that illumines the rest of this otherwise dark painting. Note that, though in the Gospels the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove (e.g., at the Baptism of Jesus), Acts speaks only of tongues of fire at Pentecost. The scene is populated with 15 persons, Mary — Mother of the Church (observed tomorrow as a feast) — at the middle. Fourteen people’s gazes are all prayerfully bent heavenwards, connecting them to the Spirit who illumines them (literally on the painting along with tongues of fire and spiritually). El Greco’s elongated bodies also serve to draw our attention upwards to the Spirit. (As one commentator noted, that effect would have been pronounced on viewers looking at this painting up on an altar, them standing below it). 

The painting in fact has two foci. Mary, Mother of the Church, is the second center. While all the gazes but one look upwards to connect us with the Holy Spirit, they also all form a circle with Mary at its center, her eyes and prayerful hands also pointing us up to the Holy Spirit. There are two traditions in Christian iconography connected with Pentecost: one that includes Mary at its center, and one (a seemingly earlier one) that included only the Apostles.

Fifteen people? Even assuming — according to the Acts of the Apostles (1:12-26) that Matthias had been selected in the interim between the Ascension and Pentecost to fill Judas’s place — that still leaves us 13. And we have two women in this painting. So the numbers don’t add up. 

One commentator notes that, given the prominent role women play in the Eastertide Gospels (starting from Easter morning itself), the two women may be Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, known to be closely associated with Jesus. Their clothing is out-of-sync with the others, looking more contemporaneously Spanish (e.g., the veil that looks like a mantilla). As we noted last week, the Ascension occurred in Bethany, their hometown.

Most commentators also suggest that the one figure on the right with a white beard, whose gaze at us (the only eyes averted from the Pentecost event itself) in fact draws us into this sacred circle, is El Greco himself. It’s said the painter inserted himself in his painting (which then leaves the question — where was Matthias?)

The painting in fact has two foci. Mary, Mother of the Church, is the second center. While all the gazes but one look upwards to connect us with the Holy Spirit, they also all form a circle with Mary at its center, her eyes and prayerful hands also pointing us up to the Holy Spirit. 

Like Mary, are our eyes gazing toward the Holy Spirit? Many of us had our own “Pentecost” in the sacrament of Confirmation. Do we remember that event, thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and seek to make it real in our daily lives? Confirmation (like Baptism and Holy Orders) imprints a sacramental seal — what it did to your soul cannot be lost (though it can be impaired by sin). So the follow-on question is: do I live up to my Pentecost?