Pentecost is the last great feast of the Easter season, and like Easter, has a vigil mass. While the evening Easter vigil has become popular in recent years, the Pentecost vigil is more likely to be attended only by the few at daily masses. On both the vigil and the feast, much Old Testament background is read for a fuller understanding of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives and church.
In Ezekiel 37:1-14, God’s breath gives life to dry and scattered bones, a symbol of how powerful God’s Spirit is. Joel 3:1-5 lists dramatic events coming from God’s Spirit as ‘poured out on’ – as prophecy in the Old Testament was often described as the spirit of God ‘coming on’ the prophets who could then speak of the revelation they had received. Peter will quote Joel in his preaching on Pentecost day – see Acts 2:16-21. Psalm 103/104 in praise of God’s life giving Spirit has lines often used in the liturgy and these are read both days. ‘You send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.’ Romans 8:22-27 is Paul’s mystical vision of the Spirit acting in creation and in us. The words on the Spirit praying within us even when we cannot find words is a message can be comforting in times of dryness or pain.
Although the theology of the Trinity was not part of the Hebrew religion, there was a long tradition of speaking of ‘the Spirit of God’, which is often seen in descriptions of God’s interaction with humans. Much of the Bible is written in poetic language and poetry is often leads to a deeper understanding of non-material reality than does abstract reasoning.
Several images are frequently used for the spirit of God coming into the world or onto humans. One idea was embedded in the language, for in both Hebrew and Greek the word for ‘spirit’ (ruach and pneuma) come from their words for ‘breath’ and may also be related to ‘wind’. We have lost this connection in English. Without a modern scientific knowledge of what air is, the ancients knew it as a reality which cannot be seen, but whose effects can be experienced –an image we can still appreciate. It would be observed that a person or animal was alive while breathing, and life stopped when breath did. God is the ultimate reality, expressed in the Bible as Life, Truth and Love, and God’s Spirit is the basis of all life on earth.
Perhaps less obvious to us is the comparison of Spirit and water – this is often in the verbs used like Joel 3:1-5, one of the choices for the vigil mass: ‘I will pour out my spirit on all humankind.’ Water in a dry climate like the Holy Land is seen as closely related to life, as indeed science bears out – we die quickly without enough water. The Jews had a major feast which was called ‘Pentecost’, associated with the rain needed for an abundant harvest. In Acts, Luke tells us this was the time of the Jewish Pentecost of the coming of the Spirit on the disciples – and obviously the Church has kept that name for our celebration of that day.
In the vigil mass, the gospel is John 7:37-39 describing Jesus at the Jewish festival. At that time, water was brought to the temple for 7 days, and poured out over the altar. Jesus bases a promise on that ritual. ‘On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood [in the temple] and cried out: If anyone is thirsty, let them come to me…As the scripture says, “from him shall flow fountains of living water.”’ The evangelist adds, ‘He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed were to receive.’
A third image, less frequently associated with the spirit of God was fire. This was based on the idea of fire used for purifying. Gold, the most precious of metals and one that could not corrupt (or mix with other elements). Gold is found in mixtures of ore, which were heated to drive off the ‘impurities’. God was ‘like a refiner’s fire’ and would come to purify his people. (Malachi 2:2-3, Zechariah 13:9). All three symbols – wind, water and fire – are in the Pentecost readings.
Readings for Pentecost Sunday
In today’s mass we have two accounts of the Spirit coming to the disciples, Luke in Acts and John in the Gospel. John Marsh is his book Saint John, says it is ‘futile’ to ask which one is right about the day and the other details. Our New Testament has four evangelists, each with their own theological special focus and literary method. They fill out and complement each other, for their purpose is not to write the kind of historical events that might now be captured on camera, rather they aim to lead us to take in our own lives the saving power of God that comes through Jesus Christ in his life, death and resurrection. There is a certain amount of mystery in all this, and different ideas to express this can all be valid.
Luke likes to use dramatic scenes to present his message, and the Spirit coming upon the disciples gathered in prayer is one of the most dramatic. Peter will be named later as one there, and earlier in Acts Luke mentions ‘certain women’ and Mary the mother of Jesus meeting with the Apostles; both Catholic and artistic traditions see Mary as there on Pentecost. In both his Gospel and in Acts, Luke makes subtle connections to both other parts of his work and to the Old Testament. Here ‘what sounded like a powerful wind’ recalls the Old Testament comparisons noted above. The reader who has in mind the early parts of the gospel, will recall that John the Baptist spoke of the ‘One more powerful’ to come who would ‘baptize in Holy Spirit and fire’ and now what ‘seemed like tongues of fire’ fulfil John’s prediction. By using the word ‘seem’ Luke suggests the experience was ‘like’ wind and flame but somehow beyond the natural elements, not identical with normal experience, but best understood by comparisons.
There were two results of this – one Luke describes in detail was speaking in foreign languages. The other is inferred from the following actions of the disciples. They had closed themselves off in a room ‘for fear of the Jews’, a place where it seems they meet after the death of Jesus. Now unafraid, they burst forth into the streets where people were out celebrating the liturgies of the Jewish Pentecost and ‘make a public spectacle of themselves’. This account will be followed in Acts by Peter boldly preaching to the crowds about Jesus, resulting in numerous converts, see 2:14-42.
Psalm 103/104:1, 24, 29-31, 34
A psalm of praise highlighting the good works brought by the Spirit of God.
1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12,-13
In this Letter (chapters 12-14), St Paul writes much about the ‘gifts’ of the Holy Spirit (‘charism’ is an English version of the Greek word and sometimes used today). The community in Corinth was overly concerned with the spectacular gifts and proud of showing them, and therefore Paul feels the need to correct their excesses. ‘Speaking in tongues’ was particularly prized and had created a chaotic atmosphere in their meetings. Here is a useful summary, reminding them – and us – that all these visible gifts were for the good of all – and not meant to single out individuals for praise. The basis for what is called ‘the mystical body of Christ’ is given here – we are to see ourselves as a part of the greater whole brought together by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a useful reminder still today when we frequently hear of – or see ourselves – dissensions among Christians.
‘Sequences’ are songs before the Gospel reading set for certain important feast days. This one combines a prayer for all of us to receive the Spirit in our lives with praise for the many effects which come through that power. The Latin hymn dates from the 13th century and has often been set to music. This missal translation with a certain archaic language sets it in rhyme. (I found the Latin version and a more literal prose translation on Wikipedia.) It is a prayer that could be used whenever we feel the need of ‘empowerment’ – to use the current popular expression.
This ‘first day of the week’ is Sunday which took over the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath for Christians. John records an early appearance of the risen Jesus to unnamed disciples. When Jesus spoke at an earlier time on the Jewish Pentecost – see above at the Vigil reading – John added, ‘The Spirit had not as yet been given because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ For John, the glorification was one event: life-death-resurrection. Now that Christ has passed through death and come into his full glory, he passes the Spirit on to his disciples and gives them the power to carry on his work of salvation by forgiving sin. ‘Breathing on them’ recalls the association of spirit and breath/wind in the Hebrew and Greek languages.
In another example of how each evangelist places traditions of Jesus’ life to fit their particular theology, Matthew speaks of the power to ‘bind’ or loose sins as given after the profession Peter makes that Jesus is the Christ (Matthew 16:16-19).