Solemnity of Pentecost (C)
By Msgr. John N. Fell
“I will not leave you orphans . . . I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always” (Jn 15:18a, 16). In our Scripture readings this Pentecost Sunday, Jesus dramatically fulfills these promises to send another Helper to forever accompany his followers. Jesus had ascended back to the right hand of the Father in Heaven, and now true to his word, sent the Holy Spirit upon his gathered disciples. The Holy Spirit, “the artisan of God’s works,” brought the ongoing Christian community (the Church) into being, empowering it to carry the message of Jesus in unity to all peoples and nations.
As St. John portrays it, the Resurrection, Ascension, and Descent of the Holy Spirit all take place on Easter Sunday itself. The occasion of the bestowal of the Spirit is Jesus’ Easter evening appearance to his disciples. The Gospel tells us that Jesus breathed on the disciples, significantly using the same verb as in the Greek versions of Genesis 2:7, the account of the Lord God breathing life into Adam. Just as that first transmission of the Spirit had created the original human life, this second sending of the Spirit brings new life in Christ Jesus.
St. Luke presents a different and more detailed version of these special events. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke places the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Hebrew feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Passover. For the Jewish people, Pentecost was a time for giving thanks after the barley harvest, as well as a commemoration of God’s gift of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. This was the day the Hebrews gave thanks for God’s forming them into his people. Both the appearance of God as fire and the arrival of the Spirit amid the sound of rushing wind would have been very reminiscent of Sinai for these gathered people.
And so, 10 days after his ascension, Jesus showed himself to be the One who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, fulfilling the promise made by John the Baptist (see Luke 3:16). As the 120 followers were gathered, they heard a sound like a strong, driving wind. Then, tongues of fire appeared and came to rest upon each of them. These outward signs strikingly witnessed to the glorious internal fact, “All were filled with the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 2:4a).
The remainder of the reading from Acts relates the sensational effects that the indwelling Spirit had upon the disciples. They began to boldly testify about “the marvels God has accomplished” to the assembled crowd. This would have been extraordinary enough for the formerly timid group, but St. Luke further tells us that each of the multitude heard the apostles’ testimony in their own language. This extraordinary ability points to the missionary nature of their new commission; they received the ability to speak in various languages because they were now commissioned to continue their testimony to the farthest bounds of the earth. Perhaps there is also another intention as the author hints at the reversal of the punishment meted out at the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9); whereas pride had brought disunity to the human race, the power of the Holy Spirit would now enable the restoration of that primordial unity. A Byzantine liturgical hymn beautifully captures this theme: “When the Most High descended and confused tongues, He scattered the people; but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all people to unity. Therefore with one voice, let us praise the Most Holy Spirit” (Kontakion of Pentecost Sunday).
That unity is the focus of our second reading, taken from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul teaches that the multitude of differences among members of the Christian community are intended to build up the Church. “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The talents and charisms of each member serve the unity of the Church because they all testify to the same reality, i.e. that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 3b). Further, every talent and charism emanates from the same Source: “All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 13). Paul offers the image of the Holy Spirit as the principle of life vivifying the Body of Christ and unifying its members in a singleness of love and mission.
With the events of Pentecost, our Easter celebrations have come to their completion. Humanity’s sinfulness has been redeemed by the passion, death, and Resurrection of the Lord. Jesus has set forth a way of living and believing intended to insure that all people hear about and embrace his life-giving presence. The sending of the Holy Spirit, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise, marks the completion of Jesus’ foundation of the church. From the moment of Pentecost onward, we are assured of the power of the indwelling Spirit leading the Christian community to its mission on earth and its fulfillment in heaven. Every member of that community, far from being passive spectators in this process of salvation, is likewise promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit in bringing the teaching and presence of Christ to every corner of society. The Church proclaims the great significance of this feast in its prayer, asking the Father of heaven “with the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed [to] fill once more the hearts of believers” with the ongoing presence of the Spirit (from the Collect of the Mass of Pentecost).
Msgr. Fell is a Scripture scholar and director, diocesan Office for Priest Personnel