Many Christians are aware that Pentecost is an important event for the Church, but they do not know exactly why. Popular piety often refers to Pentecost as the “birthday” of the Church. The word itself is Greek and is translated as “fiftieth,” and signifies the 50th day after Easter when the Church commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. This action of the Holy Spirit is described in terms that the Bible employs to indicate a manifestation of God (theophany). It is accompanied by fiery tongues and strong winds. Those who are reported as having experienced this event spoke in a variety of languages, yet everyone could understand what was being said. On the surface it is not obvious what the meaning of this Pentecost event might be. Is there a way that we can make sense of it?
The best place to begin is with the Bible itself since that is where we first learn about the Pentecost event. Fortunately, the Scripture readings for the feast of Pentecost provide an excellent place to focus our attention. The first reading is from Acts 2:1-11. This text is foundational for understanding the meaning of Pentecost. The second reading is from 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13. This passage is very important in that it deals with “spiritual gifts” that flow from the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Corinthian community. The third reading (the Gospel) for the feast of Pentecost is John 20:19-23. The significance of this text can be seen by the fact that it is often referred to as “the Johannine Pentecost.” There are additional biblical texts that could be included in this investigation, but we will limit ourselves to the three texts used by the liturgy on this day.
The Pentecost Event
The Pentecost event is described by Luke in Acts 2:1-13. Previous to that, however, Luke made it very clear that the Holy Spirit played an important role in preparing Jesus for his ministry. John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus, declared, “He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire” (Lk 3:16). At Jesus’ baptism we are told that “the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” (Lk 3:22). And, finally, when Jesus returns home to Nazareth to unfold the contents of his messianic ministry, Luke prefaces the event with the comment that Jesus was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 4:1).
Throughout the entire life and ministry of Jesus it is the Holy Spirit that empowers him with the divine commission to do the work of God. Jesus fulfilled his mission and ministry through his life, suffering, death and resurrection. The work of Jesus, according to Luke, has now been passed on to the Church. It is now time for the Church to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, as John the Baptist had earlier declared. The purpose of all this is to empower the Church with the Holy Spirit in order to carry on the mission and ministry of Jesus.
| The presence and the power of the Holy Spirit is a constant reality in the Church.
One might think that an event of such monumental importance as Pentecost would demand a lengthy narrative. Thus it is rather shocking to discover that Luke describes the entire incident in only four verses (see Acts 2:1-4). More attention is given to the reactions of those who experienced the event than to the event itself (Acts 2:5-13). The followers of Jesus are all gathered together in one place. The time factor is important because it is the “right” time, the time for the Church to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus. The first thing that the gathered disciples experience is a loud noise and a fierce wind. Could this be the same mighty wind that swept over the chaotic waters when God created the heavens and the earth (Gn 1:2)? Something new is about to happen. Then the noise and the mighty wind are manifested in tongues of fire, symbols of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Everyone present receives this gift and is filled with the Holy Spirit. What all this represents is the fact that just as Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry on his mission and ministry, so now the Church shares in that very same empowerment — to do what Jesus did. It is not by accident that the first manifestation of this divine empowerment is the gift of speech and proclamation. The nature and mission of the Church’s ministry is to be all inclusive, and therefore the Holy Spirit enables the followers of Jesus to be multilingual. This is not a reference to “speaking in tongues.” This is the gift of speech in different languages.
The scene shifts from the room where this empowerment by the Holy Spirit took place to the city streets of Jerusalem. A crowd of Jews from every nation had heard all this noise but could not figure out what was happening. Their responses are described as confused, astounded and amazed. They cannot understand how foreign languages can all be heard and understood in one’s local tongue. What is being spoken and what is being understood is very important. Everyone is hearing about the mighty acts of God. Of course, one of these mighty acts has just been experienced by those who were present in the room when the Holy Spirit descended upon them and empowered them as church. The crowds do not know what to make of all this. The more cynical bystanders attribute it to too much wine and drunkenness. But they could not be further from the truth.
It is Peter who comes forth to take charge of the situation and to defend the reputation of the newly empowered Church. But this is not the Peter we remember from the Gospels. That Peter was weak in character and lacked the needed self-confidence to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Now, however, Peter has been transformed into an exemplary leader, full of self-confidence, and is now prepared to be a real spokesperson for the Church. He is a keen example of what it means to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Taking as his text Joel 3:1-5, Peter unfolds courageously and convincingly what can be correctly understood as a classic Pentecost sermon. He unfolds the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus and its messianic import. Those who listened to Peter’s sermon and accepted it were baptized. They numbered about 3,000. That is the meaning of Pentecost.
The Pentecost event itself manifested through powerful imagery how the Holy Spirit empowered the Church to carry on the ministry and mission of Jesus. However, that was by no means the end of the story. Empowerment by the Holy Spirit flowed through the entire body of the Church. This becomes the subject matter of the second reading for the feast of Pentecost (1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13). Here the Church accommodates St. Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts to highlight some specific aspects important for understanding the meaning of Pentecost. The passage begins with Paul declaring, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit” (v. 3b). Behind this statement is Paul’s conviction that the Holy Spirit is the enabler of faith. Not everyone in the community understood this in a healthy way, which led to competition over what some considered to be the more important gifts (especially speaking in tongues). Paul offers an important corrective to that misunderstanding.
For St. Paul, the Church was structured around and operated through spiritual gifts. By necessity these gifts were diverse and every Christian shared in this diversity by possessing his or her own gift. However, spiritual gifts were never intended to be personal possessions of individual Christians. Each gift was meant to be cultivated and used for the building up of the whole Church.
While the gifts stressed diversity, they are at the same time unified by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the concrete result of the Church being empowered by the Holy Spirit. St. Paul offers a slightly different view of this by comparing the Church to a human body. Again the emphasis is on unity in diversity; many parts, but one body. This idea is crucial for Paul, who will later on develop a whole understanding of the Church as the body of Christ. Again, in all of this, the radical inclusivity is characterized by Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, any and all who were in one Spirit baptized into one body. All of this is the fruit of the empowerment of the Church by the Holy Spirit. That is the meaning of Pentecost.
The Johannine Pentecost
The Gospel reading for the feast of Pentecost provides a third perspective on the meaning of that event. The context for this passage is a post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the community of faith (Jn 20:19-23). It is the evening of the first day of the week and the disciples have barricaded themselves behind locked doors. They have done this out of fear that what has just happened to Jesus (crucifixion) will also happen to them. Without any explanation as to how he gained entrance to the room, Jesus appears in their midst. The first thing he does is to offer his gift of peace to the community. Their response must have been full of fear.
It is only after Jesus shows his disciples his wounds that they grasp the continuity between the earthly Jesus and the risen Lord standing in their midst. Now their response is joyous because they have recognized the Lord. Jesus confirms their recognition by repeating his gift of peace to the community. All of this establishes the groundwork for what follows.
The second part of this Gospel passage focuses on Jesus commissioning his disciples. The mission is clearly stated by Jesus. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (v. 21). What this means is that the disciples are to take over the very same work that Jesus did while alive and on earth. This work is the task of revealing the reality of God in and through the life and ministry of Jesus. Once again the faith community is empowered to take on this mission by receiving the Holy Spirit. It is because of this that commentators refer to this action as the Johannine Pentecost.
The divine empowerment that took place at Pentecost and is described in Acts 2 is the very same empowerment granted the disciples here. This gift of the Holy Spirit was strongly hinted at in John 7:37-39, but had to wait until Jesus had been glorified through being raised up on the cross. This is the same Spirit that God breathed into Adam allowing Adam to become a living being (see Gn 2:7). It is the same breath that God had the prophet Ezekiel prophesy to, that this breath might enter the dead dry bones of the nation bringing them back to life (Ez 37:9). This empowering Holy Spirit brings new life for a new creation.
However, there is an added feature included in this Gospel passage. Jesus declares, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (v. 23). This empowerment is granted to the community of faith. It is not the same thing that the Church understood was granted by Jesus to Peter in Matthew 16:13-20. In the Gospel of John, “sin” has a very broad meaning. It designates being blind to the revelation of God manifested in the words and deeds of Jesus. The followers of Jesus have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to take up the mission of continuing the work of Jesus. That is the meaning of Pentecost.
Priests walk across rose petals as they fall from the oculus of the Pantheon at the conclusion of Pentecost Mass in 2016. The rose petals dropped by Rome firefighters symbolize the tongues of fire that came upon the apostles at Pentecost. CNS photo/Paul Haring
The goal of these reflections has been to focus on the meaning of Pentecost from the perspective of the Scriptures. Nothing was said about the Jewish background of this feast or about the historicity of the event itself. While all of that is interesting and important, it would have distracted us from our goal. In the interest of those who have to preach about the meaning of Pentecost we chose to focus on the Scripture readings for the feast day itself. All three readings provide a slightly different perspective while stressing a unified meaning. However one looks at it, Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit descending upon the Church and empowering the Church to carry on the mission and ministry of Jesus.
The presence and the power of the Holy Spirit is a constant reality in the Church. This gives the Church a central role in carrying out Jesus’ work in the world. And this mission by nature is multilingual and all inclusive. That is the meaning of Pentecost.
FATHER EUGENE HENSELL, OSB, is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana, and an associate professor of Scripture at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.