Pentecost: The Spirit Enters the World

User’s Guide to Sunday, May 23, Pentecost Sunday

Jean II Restout (1692-1768), “Pentecost”
Jean II Restout (1692-1768), “Pentecost” (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

Sunday, May 23, is Pentecost Sunday.

Mass Readings: Acts 2:1-11, 39-40; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-32, 34; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13 or Galatians 5:16-25; John 20:19-23 or John 15:26-27, 16:12-15.

This is truly a great feast day close to Christmas and Easter in dignity. In a way, what Christmas is to the Son, Pentecost is to the Spirit: It celebrates his great entrance into world history and revelation to the world. 

This feast is at least as old as Pope Leo the Great (440-461). It merits its own vigil, and all-night prayer vigils before Pentecost are an ancient custom. In the West, the traditional color is red, and many countries have the custom of decorating churches with roses. Families can celebrate by wearing red to church, decorating their homes with roses, singing hymns to the Holy Spirit, and festivities involving symbols of the Spirit (doves, flame, etc.).

The vigil Mass has up to four readings from the Old Testament: 1) the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), because Pentecost reverses Babel, overcoming the division of languages by the Holy Spirit and the beginning the reunification of the fractured human family in the Church; 2) the Law at Sinai (Exodus 19:3-20), which Jewish Pentecost commemorated, whereas Christian Pentecost celebrates the giving of the Spirit, the true “law” of the New Covenant; 3) Ezekiel’s vision of the resurrection of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14), which symbolized the resurrection of Israel, since at Pentecost a New Israel is resurrected around 12 new patriarchs, the apostles; and 4) Joel’s prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit in the last days (Joel 3:1-5), which Peter quotes in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:15-21). 

The first reading for Pentecost Day is Acts 2:1-11, the first Christian Pentecost. Jews already celebrated this day, calling it “Pentecost,” meaning “50” in Greek because it fell 50 days after Passover. Moses prescribed a harvest festival on this day, and it coincided with the arrival of Israel at Sinai after the first Passover, so the Jews observed it as the commemoration of Sinai. Just as fire, smoke, earthquake and wind were present at Sinai, so these phenomena return at Pentecost as the Spirit moves powerfully on the apostles in Jerusalem and 3,000 men, both Jews and Jewish converts, receive baptism and the Holy Spirit. 

The usual Gospel for this Sunday is John 20:19-23, the giving of the Spirit to the apostles in the Upper Room on Easter Sunday. This is a different event than Pentecost, not John’s confused memory of what Luke describes in Acts 2. Nonetheless, they are connected. Jesus gave the Spirit to the Apostles first, for the purpose of making them into priests who had the authority to forgive sin (“whose sins you forgive are forgiven them”) and celebrate the other sacraments. This reading reminds us that holy orders is a kind of “pre-sacrament” to the others, because before anyone can receive baptism or confirmation or any other sacrament, there had to be men consecrated as priests by the Spirit to celebrate these rites. Those in holy orders receive the Spirit so they can dispense him to others.

There is an alternate Gospel for Year B (John 15:26-27; 16:12-15). Jesus promises to send the Spirit to “guide you to all truth.” When I was a Protestant, I had Charismatic friends who would quote this verse as if it gave them personal infallibility — they just prayed to the Spirit and unerringly understood the true meaning of Scripture. But this is not a promise to each individual Christian: The Greek is “you” in the plural, which we lack in Standard English but various dialects express by “y’all,” or “all y’all,” etc. Jesus promises the Spirit of truth to the apostles all together. This is why we believe a gathering of the successors of the apostles (an ecumenical council) cannot err. 

Happy Pentecost!