Solemnity Of Pentecost
The first reading is Luke’s narrative of the Christian Pentecost event in his Acts of Apostles.
In last Sunday’s first reading for the Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus, the apostles were told by Jesus that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.” In Luke’s theological calendar that promise was made on the fortieth day of Jesus’ time with his disciples after his resurrection. In Jewish reckoning that would be the fortieth day after Passover. After the disappearance of Jesus, Luke tells us in Acts that 120 people, including “the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus,” were gathered in prayer. This lasted nine days, (the first novena, from Latin novem, meaning nine). Forty-nine days or seven weeks were now completed since Passover. It was time for the summer harvest feast, which was called Shavuoth in Hebrew, or simply the Feast of Weeks, that is seven weeks. Greek-speaking Jews called this summer harvest feast Pentecoste, meaning fiftieth, that is, the fiftieth day after Passover. It is on this Jewish harvest feast that Luke places the first Christian harvest, “and there were added in that day about three thousand souls.”
The details of Luke’s story came not only from previous traditions which he collected but from the Old Testament. The Sinai experience of Exodus 19-24 was one influence in Luke’s composition of the story, in particular, the violent wind and the fire. But the Pentecost event was a much gentler occurrence than the violence of Mt. Sinai. All were filled with the Holy Spirit – and that is a favorite expression in Luke’s writings. This too has Old Testament background. An example, 1 Samuel 10:10, “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon Saul, and he prophesied among other prophets.” There are many other Old Testament examples of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon someone so that they spoke for God – just as the apostles were about to do. As to the gift of tongues (languages) which Luke here claims for the apostles – the point made is that although people were gathered in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven…, each one heard the apostles speaking in his own language.”
What was Luke thinking? The Tower of Babel, Genesis 11. In the theology of Genesis, the building of the tower was an act of arrogant pride. The Lord noticed that humans had formed one people and spoke one language. So what was a fitting punishment for human arrogance? The Lord says, “Let us …confuse their language that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them over the face of the earth….” As noted above, Luke points out that there were people present in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven.” He lists nations from the Near East, through North Africa, into Rome. Babel has been reversed. All nations are now gathered through the Spirit into the new People of God – once again one people, one language.
If we did not have Luke’s proclamation of the descent of the Holy Spirit and the first Christian harvest on the Jewish harvest feast, the fiftieth or Pentcoste day after Passover, we would not be celebrating the presence of the Holy Spirit on the fiftieth day after the resurrection. We would rely on another composition proclaiming, in a very different way than Luke did, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. We would have only the Gospel of John as an alternative. That is our gospel reading for this Sunday. This much Luke and John have in common. Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, to the Church. In Luke’s theology, that promise is made after Jesus’ resurrection. In John’s theology, that promise is made at the Last Supper.
John’s story begins with the time of the occurrence – “the evening of the first day of the week,” the day of Jesus’ resurrection. In a previous post-resurrection story, John noted that Jesus appeared first to Mary of Magdala, then he ascended to his Father. Now he is back, all happen on the same day. How different from Luke! The disciples have reasons to fear. They are secluded behind locked doors. The risen Jesus is no longer subject to the laws of physics. Suddenly he stands among the distraught and troubled disciples. He greets them with a needed greeting, “Shalom alachem!” (“Peace be with you!”) Coming from Jesus this greeting should be understood not just as a greeting, but a bestowal of peace and security. Meaning: “You are still under my protection!” As Jesus had to prove the reality of his risen body in Luke’s gospel, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself,” he does likewise in John’s version, “He showed them his hands and his side.” Recall that Jesus’ side was opened with a lance only in John’s gospel.
The climactic moment of this resurrection night is at hand. Jesus states his authority for what he is about to do – bringing to life the Church born from his side on the cross. His authority is from the Father, “As the Father has sent me….” He passes on this authority to his disciples, “…so do I send you.” Not unlike the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. How does Jesus bring to life the Church born on the cross? By the divine Breath that first hovered over the waters of chaos in Genesis 1:2, “The Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters,” and creation began. Therefore Jesus breathed upon them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit!” (In Hebrew, Greek, and Latin the word for spirit and breath are the same.) There is Old Testament background beside Genesis 1:2. The Divine Breath breathes “the breath of life” into the first human, “and man became a living being.” In Ezekiel 37, the breath of God gives life to human skeletal remains in the Valley of Dry Bones. The Church is brought to life through the infusion of the Divine Breath, which is the Holy Spirit. What does John say is the purpose of the living Church, the Christian Community, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven.”