The Sacred Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil are considered to be the highest holy days of the Western Church. For many in the Eastern Churches, however, Pentecost is considered the highest ranking feast, even above Pascha (the Eastern celebration of Easter). But be it the first or second most important holiday on the Christian calendar, no one can argue it’s significance. This is the day the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles, the birthday of the Church.
Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
Sunday readings open fittingly with the Pentecost story from Acts of
the Apostles. It is after the Ascension and we are back with the
Apostles in the upper room. Most of us are familiar with the story… The
Holy Spirit come upon the like “tongues of fire” giving them the power
to go down into the streets and preach the Gospel so that this
international multitude can hear them speaking in their own tongues.
While this later part of the story is the part we tend to focus on, the
very beginning of the story also has great meaning… a meaning that our
modern ears tend to miss…
The fist line begins “When the time
for the Pentecost was fulfilled,” It sound so simple and obvious that
we miss the author’s deeper intent. In fact, this passage refers to the
Jewish celebration of Shavuot, or what Hellenistic Jews referred to as
Pentecost (which in Greek for “fiftieth day” since the Passover). Also
referred to as the Festival of Weeks, Shavuot celebrates the giving of
the Torah… the Law. It also coincides with Israelite harvest season
marking the conclusion of the grain harvest, or the Day of First Fruits
celebrated at the Temple. So while our Jewish ancestors celebrate
Pentecost as the giving of the Law, Christians celebrate receiving the
gift of the Holy Spirit, which in turn gave them the courage to spread
the Gospel… the new Law. Coincidence? Not at all. This is one of
those moments where our author sees an opportunity to draw a connection
between the old tradition and the new, and bring with it a sense of
renewal that is echoed in our Psalm.
Our second reading comes
from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. Here Paul reminds us that
our ability to say “Jesus is Lord” comes from the Holy Spirit. Indeed, a
fitting statement for Pentecost, but as Paul continues he presents us
with one of the most important teachings of his ministry, that WE are
the Body of Christ… though we have many parts, we are made one through
Our Gospel for this Holy Day comes from John, taking
us back to the upper room where Jesus for the second time appeared to
the Apostles after the Resurrection (the first being that time when
Thomas wasn’t present). It is a simple, yet moving moment as Jesus
“breathed on them and said to them ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.:” This is
the “Pentecost moment” in John’s Gospel. As we know, none of the
Gospels go into a lot of detail with regard to Pentecost, but we need to
remind ourselves that, as is typical with scripture, that it’s not
always the details that are important, but the moment.
the Gospels do not all discuss Pentecost in the same way, the importance
of the moment is that the Holy Spirit came! Jesus promised them the
Spirit, and it came. The Spirit that we celebrate in the Rite of
Confirmation. The Spirit that sustains us in our commitment to Christ.
The Spirit that binds us together as Church with Our Father and His
Son. This isn’t just a moment for the Apostles, but for the entire
Church, as we witness the continuing coming of the Spirit to each of us,
in its own way, in every generation.
people going through the RCIA or Adult Faith Formation, especially in
the beginning, feel very uncomfortable because they feel they don’t yet
know enough about the Catholic faith or what is proper during Mass.
They often feel a little out of place, thinking that the rest of the
congregation is watching for them to make a mistake about standing or
sitting or kneeling. While this is a perfectly normal and common
feeling, I am always reminding these “Catholics in training” that this
is nothing to worry about, and that in fact there are many active
Catholics who could stand to learn a thing or two about the practice of
their faith. Understanding the importance of this Sunday’s celebration
of Pentecost is one of them.
We’re never too old to learn
something new… even someone like myself who was raised in the Church and
served in a variety of Liturgical and catechetical ministries. One of
the new things I learned this week was about the Vigil for Pentecost.
Now for all the years I’ve been teaching and writing about the fact that
the readings we have for the Vigil of Pentecost (Saturday evening Mass)
are different from those used during the Sunday celebration. In and of
itself, this isn’t all that unusual. Many holy days have different
“vigil” readings. But until this week I had no idea how different.
There is, in fact a celebration that is referred to as the “Extended
Vigil” for Pentecost... a Liturgy similar to the Easter Vigil as we
immerse ourselves in the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit… from
Genesis, to Exodus, to the prophets Ezekiel and Joel, and Paul’s letter
to the Romans, all teaching us about the Holy Spirit. Who knew?
only seems right that we would have such a Liturgy, one that both
reflects and respects the Easter Vigil by bringing the Easter story, and
the Easter Season to its conclusion. Truth be told, however, we can
all give ourselves a little leeway on knowing about this “Extended
Vigil” for Pentecost because it’s not widely celebrated, and therefore
not widely known… at least not in Southern California. But it would be
interesting to find out which parishes or communities do celebrate this
extended version of the Pentecost Vigil. So if you know of anywhere,
please let me know. In the meantime, know this… The coming of the Holy
Spirit is what makes us the Church, binding us into the Body of Christ.
It is a moment for praise and thanksgiving!