Only Luke’s Gospel describes the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the first disciples in a dramatic form. John has a shorter story of Jesus giving them the Spirit by ‘breathing’ on his disciples after the resurrection. This action connects the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘spirit’ which come from words for ‘breath’ or ‘wind.’ Luke mentions wind, too.
The readings are available online here. Note: 2nd set of readings apply
Our title for today’s feast comes from Greek word for ‘fiftieth’ noting the 50 days since Passover. There was a Hebrew festival at that time called both ‘The Harvest’ and ‘The Feast of Weeks.’ Like Passover, it was a popular celebration and people would have gathered in Jerusalem, which explains the crowds who are there in the second part of our reading. By Luke’s time, it may have also been a time to celebrate the giving of the Law on Sinai which began the old covenant while for the Christians, Pentecost marks a decisive step: the first point when separation begins between the Jews who accept Christ and his new kingdom, and those who do not.
Although our translation of the opening verse says ‘apostles’, in the Greek it says ‘all came together’ and in Acts 1:14, the waiting group included women and specifically Mary, the mother of Jesus. This emphasizes that the Spirit comes to all of the church, and not just the leaders. Wind and fire were both symbolic of God’s Spirit. Is Luke speaking only symbolically, or suggesting there was something seen and heard by those present? It was in any case not ordinary wind and fire, but ‘like’. The image of the ‘tongues’ of fire is like flames leaping out from a central source, so that each of those present received this gift of the Spirit, symbolized as the ‘flame’ over each head. This echoes John the Baptist in Luke’s Gospel predicting Jesus would baptize ‘in Holy Spirit and fire’.
The result of the experience is that they begin to speak ‘in other tongues’. In First Corinthians, Paul writes much about ‘tongues’ as a kind of ecstatic speech like words that are not understood. But Luke suggests something different here, for the words are understood by those speaking a number of different languages. He does not tell us the disciples left ‘the house where they were sitting’, but it seems that they went into the public space among the celebrating pilgrims where they were heard by the crowd.
Luke lists a number of geographic locations which are not those of our times and so may not mean much more to us than ‘many’ places. Nicholas King notes that these areas make a great circle around the ancient Near East, and thus we can see it as representing the ‘ends of the earth’ as known at that time, where Jesus had told the disciples just before his Ascension they would be his witnesses. (Acts 1:8).
In Acts, this miracle is followed by Peter standing up and answering the puzzled crowd with the first recorded sermon of the Christian church. This begins with a reflection on the action of the Spirit, and then he tells them of the life and meaning of Jesus (you can read this, beginning with Acts 2:14).
Nicholas King: ‘Acts is the dramatic illustration of how the fire of gospel spread round the Mediterranean world, of how the wind blew from Jerusalem to Rome and then onwards down the centuries and cross the world to wherever you are reading these words today.’ As the words spread out, the power of the Spirit is also wherever we are today. Pentecost is meant as a celebration of great joy. (This tends to get lost in the modern world but the Spirit is there for us at all times.)
Psalm 103/104:1, 24, 29-31, 34
This is a psalm drawing all creation in to God’s praise. It follows the sequence of the opening of Genesis in the listing plants and animals and God’s concern for the earth. The lines about sending forth the Spirit make it the choice for Pentecost.
The language of the Greek text is a contrast between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’. The Hebrews thought of ‘flesh’ as the ‘natural condition of humanity’; it is opposed to spirit, the part of humanity associated with God. It does not distinguish moral weakness from physical, but may include both. (explanation from the Jerome Biblical Commentary). Although ‘flesh’ still heard in some old English expressions, it is not a modern way to speak of a person, and our translation gets around this by using the word ‘unspiritual’, although may also be confusing. The meaning is clearer if we look at the many ways people behave that are harmful to themselves and to others and contrast them with what we recognize as good. (Compare Paul’s two lists in Galatians 5:19-24 for some of these.)
‘Justified’ is a word Paul borrows from judicial procedures as one way of describing how God saves us. We are held ‘not guilty’ but this comes not from ourselves but from the action of Christ on our behalf. Paul expresses the action of the Trinity in several ways: God is living in us, the Spirit of ‘him’ who raised Jesus, the Spirit living in us, Christ living in us. Then he moves to another image. Not only have we been ‘acquitted’, and have the presence of God, we are now made ‘children of God’ (our translation has ‘sons’ but the Greek grammar is inclusive of both sexes.) ‘Children’ is a word in the New Testament often used to express affection. The idea of inheritance comes next; as Christ received everything God has to give, so will we. We inherit through the suffering of Christ, but while still on earth, have our share of suffering which we can offer with his.
John 14:15-16, 23-16
As often since Easter, our selection draws on the Last Discourse of Jesus which John places at the Last Supper. Today, appropriately for this feast, we hear Jesus promising to send those faithful to his commandment to love, ‘another Advocate’. This is a metaphor drawn from law courts: meaning one who will ‘take our part.’ In this section of John, it is the Father who sends the Spirit when Jesus asks. As Jesus has been the first ‘advocate’, the Spirit is ‘another’.
There are some verses omitted from our reading, leaving out a passage more concerned with Jesus’ leaving. We pick up with a second emphasis on keeping Jesus’ ‘words’ – another way of describing the commands to ‘love one another’. He also stresses that his words are those of ‘the one who sent me’. We then have the promise of Jesus and the Father living – ‘making a home’ – with us. The last words tell of how the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, will also be our teacher, and through the Spirit, we are drawn into all that Jesus taught and did.
I have, from time to time in writing these notes, disagreed with some of the translations used in our liturgy. Mass texts are from The Jerusalem Bible of 1966, which has also notes and explanations often helpful to readers. The effort to make it elegant and easy to read however, means it is at times less close to the original texts and some of this is misleading, as today ‘apostles’ instead of ‘all’ in the first reading. Also the earlier editions were done before there was concern over the use of sexist language. There is a special problem in that the Greek has two words which have been traditionally translated as ‘man’ although they have different meanings. One – anthropos – means a ‘human being’, while another – aner/andros – means a male. (Various English words are based on one or the other of these, such as anthropology and androgen). Some more recent translations aim at ‘inclusive language’ to note the presence of women in the past and the relevance to women today.