What Is Pentecost? 

Sunday, May 31, 2020, the Feast of Pentecost

• Acts 2:1-11
• Ps 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
• 1 Cor 12:3B-7, 12-13
• Jn 20:19-23

Where does the Feast of Pentecost come from? Believe it or not, the ancient Israelites celebrated Pentecost long before the Holy Spirit ever descended upon the disciples. The word “Pentecost” comes from a Greek word that means “50th day,” because this Jewish festival was always celebrated 50 days after Passover. It commemorated the Lord giving the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. 

This is the way the Lord came to the Israelites in those days. During a loud lightning storm, a heavy cloud overshadowed Mt. Sinai. Loud shofar blasts sounded throughout the area, causing the Israelites to tremble. Moses led the people out of the camp to the foot of the mountain to encounter God. Scripture says: 

Now Mount Sinai was completely enveloped in smoke, because the Lord had come down upon it in fire. … The blast of the shofar grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God was answering him with thunder. (Ex 19:16-19)

God subsequently summoned Moses to the top of the mountain and revealed the Ten Commandments to him, establishing a covenant with the Israelites. As long as the Israelites obeyed the Ten Commandments, the Lord promised He would deliver them from their enemies. 

Unfortunately, due to human weakness, the ancient Jews frequently broke the Lord’s Law. The Lord rebuked them, saying, “They broke my covenant, though I was their master—oracle of the Lord” (Jer 31:32). 

So, the Lord devised a more perfect plan to bring His people closer to Him. “See, days are coming — oracle of the Lord — when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:31-34). In other words, the Lord would one day give His people the power of the Holy Spirit, through which they could better fulfill God's will on earth. 

The way in which the Lord established the New Law, written upon the hearts of His people, is reminiscent of the way He approached the Israelites in the Old Testament. This brings us to this Sunday’s first reading from the book of Acts. Like the Israelites, the disciples were “all in one place together,” waiting to encounter the Lord (Acts 2:1). They expected His coming because before Jesus ascended, He told them God would send down upon them a “power from on high” (Lk 24:49). So on the ninth day after the Ascension, from the sky came a “noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were” (Acts 2:2). Then tongues of fire rested on each one of them. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:4). 

In both accounts, loud blasts preceded God’s coming. What was about to happen in both instances was of immense importance. After these seminal moments, the Lord would never relate to His people in the same way again. So, like a trumpeter announcing the coming of a king, God announced the coming of His Law, His Holy Spirit, with loud, audible signs. 

Both accounts also prominently feature fire, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church says “symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions” (696). Knowledge of the Ten Commandments would forever transform the way the ancient Israelites lived, or tried to live, their lives. So, too, after the descent of the Holy Spirit, the disciples’ lives would never be the same. After all, on Pentecost, the Holy Trinity was fully revealed, ushering the world into its last days, “the time of the Church, the Kingdom already inherited though not yet consummated” (Catechism, 732). 

Saint Faustina writes, “Oh, if souls would only be willing to listen, at least a little, to the voice of conscience and the voice — that is, the inspirations — of the Holy Spirit! … [O]nce we open ourselves to the influence of the Holy Spirit, He Himself will fulfill what is lacking in us” (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, 359). If we let Him, the Holy Spirit can transform our lives and make us into the people God predestined us to become. 

We ought to pray frequently for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, that He guides our minds and hearts in all that we say and do. As frail, weak human beings, we often miss the truth standing right in front of us. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit gives us the supernatural insight we need to see what the Lord wants us to see and to fulfill the Lord’s will on earth until He comes again. 

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Image: "Pentecost" by Jean II Restout  (1692–1768)

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