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Pentecost Sunday

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.


Acts 2-1-11
Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
John 20:19-23

Our 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 the Spirit.

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.

While 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.

Final thoughts:

Many 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?

It 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!

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