10 Points for Pentecost
COMMENTARY: On June 4, the Church commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. Here are 10 thoughts on what is traditionally called the ‘birthday of the Church.’
1. What does “Pentecost” mean?
The word Pentecost is Greek for “50th” (pentecoste) and is derived from the fact that it occurs on the 50th day after Easter Sunday.
It is also called Whitsunday, or “White Sunday” because of the white baptismal robes that were worn by those newly baptized on the vigil of Pentecost and that symbolized the power of the sacrament in purifying the baptized sinner.
2. How does Pentecost connect to the Old Testament?
In the Old Testament, the feast is called by several names, including the “Feast of Weeks.” In Judaism, it is known as Shavuot (Hebrew, “weeks”) and is ranked among the three major historical and agricultural festivals on the Jewish calendar, with Passover and Sukkot. It marks the important grain harvest, when the first fruits were brought to the Temple, hence its other name as the “Feast of the First Fruits.” According to Deuteronomy 16:
“You shall count off seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the day when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. You shall then keep the feast of weeks for the Lord, your God, and the measure of your own voluntary offering which you will give shall be in proportion to the blessing the Lord, your God, has given you (16:9-10).”
It also commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
3. When did Pentecost happen?
According to Acts 2, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” This means that the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles occurred 10 days after the Ascension of the Lord and 50 days after the Resurrection (See Acts 2:1-4).
The descent of the Holy Spirit marks the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to the apostles at the Ascension that is recorded at the very start of the Acts of the Apostles, when he commanded them to remain in Jerusalem:
“While meeting with them, he enjoined them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for ‘the promise of the Father, about which you have heard me speak; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
“When they had gathered together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He answered them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
“‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:46-49).
4. What was the role of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?
The Catechism teaches, “At the first Pentecost, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was manifested, given and communicated as a divine Person to the Church, fulfilling the paschal mystery of Christ according to his promise (726, 731; cf. 1287).”
5. How was the Holy Spirit manifested?
The Spirit was manifested in two ways: a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Acts 2 tell us: “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.”
Wind is one of the most fundamental symbols of the Holy Spirit. In the Greek, the word “Spirit” (pneuma) also means “wind” or “breath.” The Spirit of God moved across the waters during Creation (Genesis 1:1-2), so the Spirit here is bringing a new creation. As the Catechism teaches, “fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions” (696).
6. What was the immediate effect of Pentecost?
Acts 2 tells us, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
In this passage, the Greek word for “tongues” (glossais) is the same used for the tongues of fire, making a direct connection between the descent of the Spirit and the sudden ability of the apostles to preach in other languages and dialects. Returning to the Old Testament imagery, the curse of the Tower of Babel has been reversed, so Pentecost is, as Pope Benedict XVI taught on the solemnity in 2012, “the feast of human unity, understanding and sharing.”
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as Christ promised, enlightened and strengthened the apostles, so they could understand and preach the Gospel fearlessly, even to the point of death. Pope Benedict XVI added:
“It [the Spirit] came to rest upon the head of each of them and ignited in them a divine fire, a fire of love, capable of transforming things. Their fear disappeared, their hearts were filled with new strength, their tongues were loosened, and they began to speak freely, in such a way that everyone could understand the news that Jesus Christ had died and was risen. On Pentecost, where there was division and incomprehension, unity and understanding were born.”
7. What did St. Peter say at Pentecost?
St. Peter’s words (Acts 2: 14-41) were especially significant.
Speaking for the Eleven, he proclaimed to those in Jerusalem, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
His strong words did not call on them to have faith alone, but to repent and be baptized. The result of this speech was that, on that one day, “about three thousand persons were added.”
Note that on Pentecost it was Peter who preached first, just as he accomplished the first healing in the Church (Acts 3:6-7).
8. Why is Pentecost called the “birthday of the Church”?
It is called the Church’s birthday because on that day the Holy Spirit was sent by Christ to sanctify the Church by transmitting the graces Jesus had won through the cross and his resurrection. The Catechism teaches:
“On that day, the Holy Trinity is fully revealed. Since that day, the Kingdom [of God] announced by Christ has been open to those who believe in him: In the humility of the flesh and in faith, they already share in the communion of the Holy Trinity. By his coming, which never ceases, the Holy Spirit causes the world to enter into the ‘last days,’ the time of the Church, the Kingdom already inherited, though not yet consummated. … The mission of Christ and the Holy Spirit is brought to completion in the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This joint mission henceforth brings Christ's faithful to share in his communion with the Father in the Holy Spirit” (731, 737-738).
9. What is the connection between Pentecost and the Eucharist?
As we read the account of Pentecost in Acts 2, we see the significant statement in 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”
There is a clear Eucharistic connection with Pentecost that was expressed beautifully by Pope St. John Paul II in a general audience on Sept. 13, 1989:
“A significant fact is linked to the Pentecost event: From the earliest times after the descent of the Holy Spirit, the apostles and their followers, converted and baptized, ‘devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42). It was as if the Holy Spirit himself had directed them toward the Eucharist. In the encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem, I stated: ‘Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church from the beginning expressed and confirmed her identity through the Eucharist’ (62). The primitive Church was a community founded on the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:42). It was completely animated by the Holy Spirit, who enlightened the believers to understand the Word and gathered them together in charity around the Eucharist. Thus the Church grew into a multitude of believers who ‘were of one heart and soul’” (Acts 4:32).
10. How should we celebrate Pentecost?
As Christians, we should embrace the words of the Catechism, “Annually, the Church celebrates the memory of the Pentecost events — the beginning of the new ‘age of the Church,’ when Christ lives and acts in and with his Church” (Glossary, p. 893; cf. 1076).
It adds, “The Church’s mission is not an addition to that of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but is its sacrament: In her whole being and in all her members, the Church is sent to announce, bear witness, make present and spread the mystery of the communion of the Holy Trinity” (738).
As members of the Church, we must each strive to work for the fulfillment of the mission of the Church.
We are not alone in this. We have the certain assurance that the Holy Spirit will remain with the Church forever.
The Catechism says, “The Holy Spirit, whom Christ the head pours out on his members, builds, animates and sanctifies the Church. She is the sacrament of the Holy Trinity’s communion with men” (747).
Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor and senior contributor to EWTN News.