The readings for Sunday, June 4, 2017, Pentecost Sunday, Cycle A, are
Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; and John 20:19-23.
What is the meaning of the Greek word Pentecoste? It is the ordinal number “fiftieth.” Greek-speaking Jews used this word for the fiftieth day after Passover. The Aramaic or Hebrew equivalent is Shavuoth, meaning ‘Weeks,’ or the Feast of Weeks. The name refers to the seven weeks or forty-nine days after Passover. The fiftieth day, the pentecoste day after Passover, celebrated the summer harvest. If Luke’s catechetical intention in Acts, today’s first reading, had not set, and very appropriately set, the first Christian harvest of three thousand souls on that day, the word Pentecost would be meaningless for Christians. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Luke’s catechesis unites this harvest feast with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and the ensuing harvest of souls through the preaching of the Apostles.
We can attribute this connection to Luke instead of to concrete history because his is not the only catechetical instruction on the descent of the Holy Spirit, or rather, the celebration of the Holy Spirit’s presence and movement in the Christian Community. The readings of the Feast of Pentecost present us with two contrasting descriptions or catechesis. Luke’s catechesis first, then the catechesis of the Gospel of John.
Luke begins, “When the fiftieth day (Pentecoste) had been fulfilled (or arrived), they were all in one place together.” The Old Testament, the Sinai experience of Exodus 19-24 kicks in, as Luke writes, “Suddenly there came from the sky a noise like the approach of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.”
The giving of the Torah, the Law of Moses, on Mt. Sinai was accompanied by similar phenomena. By the time Luke wrote his Gospel in the last third of the first Christian century, the Jewish Feast of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Then another phenomenon: “There appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each of them.” Old Testament influence from Numbers 11:25. For the governance of God’s people, Moses appointed seventy elders of the people, “Then the Lord came down … and took some of the Spirit that was upon him (Moses), and put it upon the seventy elders, and when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.”
As Moses’ helpers prophesied (spoke for God) after the Spirit rested on them, so now also the Apostles, “And they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other languages (tongues), as the Spirit enabled them to speak.” Luke’s theology has a special focus on the universality of the Christian proclamation. Therefore a multitude of people, “from every nation under heaven … came together, and they were bewildered because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” The Old Testament kicks in again. At Luke’s Pentecost the Lord, the Holy Spirit, comes down from heaven and enables “all nations under heaven” to understand the first Christian proclamation. Thus Luke celebrates the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the Christian Community.
Now John’s version, the Gospel reading of this feast day. It was the evening of the first day of the week, the very day of the resurrection of Jesus. In John’s catechesis Jesus had encountered Mary of Magdala. He commissioned her to proclaim his resurrection to his disciples who were still in hiding because they feared arrest from the high priestly clans responsible for Jesus’ death. Jesus commissioned Mary of Magdala to proclaim to the apostles that he was ascending “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This was on the morning of his resurrection. So John’s catechesis depicts three sacred events happening on the same day: the resurrection, the ascension, and “On the evening of that day” he appeared to the Eleven. First he bestowed his Shalom on them, granting them peace, security, safety. Next he presented his credentials, “As the Father has sent me,” followed by a bestowal of their credentials, “So do I send you.” They are now ambassadors of God.
What are they to do with their credentials, their role as ambassadors for God? John continues, “He breathed upon them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The breath of Jesus symbolizes that he is the one who bestows the Holy Spirit on the Church. It is a startling thought, that in John’s catechesis, the empowerment of the Church by the Spirit is not to create rulers, but to empower the forgiveness of sins.