With our celebration of the Ascension complete, as a Church we look forward to the celebration of Pentecost, that great event in which the promise of Jesus begins its fulfillment in the coming of the Advocate, the Counselor, the Spirit of Truth who will lead the disciples in all things (John 16).
The Greek name (pentēkostē) refers to the Jewish Feast of Weeks, deriving from its occurrence 50 days after Passover (Acts 20:16; 1 Cor 16:8). Because the early Christians received the baptism of the Holy Spirit on this day, the term is now more commonly used to refer to that event recounted in Acts 2:1–13. Shavuot was originally an agricultural feast marking the end of the grain harvest and was celebrated during the month of Sivan (May/June). Both Josephus (Ant 3.10.6 §252; JW1.13.3 §253) and Jewish intertestamental writings (Tob 2:1; 2 Macc 12:31–32) refer to the feast as Pentecost.
The Feast of Weeks (Shavuot – “weeks” ) was the second of the three great Jewish pilgrimage feasts. Its name signified that it concluded the period of seven weeks which began with the presentation of the first sheaf of the barley harvest during the Passover celebration (Lev 23:15–16; Deut 16:9). It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer that counts the days from Passover to Shavuot. The Torah mandates the seven-week counting beginning on the second day of Passover, to be immediately followed by Shavuot. This counting of days and weeks is understood to express anticipation and desire for the giving of the Torah. On Passover, the people of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot, they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.
The first reading for Pentecost Sunday is the account from Acts 2 so familiar to every Christian. Luke’s account is a very public event compared to the very private Johannine account, our Gospel reading. Why the difference? Scholars weigh in on this question from a multitude of perspectives.
Some scholars defend the basic historicity of the entire Lucan narrative; others conclude that it is essentially Luke’s theological attempt to explain the coming of the Spirit, not an historical account of actual events. Some, holding to the historicity of the Lucan account in Acts 2 hold that John’s account is symbolic only. The Second Council of Constantinople (AD 533) condemned the view of Theodore of Mopsuestia that Jesus did not really give the Spirit on that Easter evening but acted only figuratively and by way of promise. Some, like John Chrysostom, held that the giving of the purpose was for one particular gift or another; others have said that Easter’s coming of the Spirit is personal while Pentecost is ecclesial or missionary. And another set of scholars posit a narrower coming of the Spirit targeting special gifts intended for specific ministry (e.g., the forgiveness) versus a more general coming of the Spirit as a blessing and empowerment for the larger Johannine ministry of discipleship: love and holding to the commandments of Jesus. Some simply conjecture that since John is not overly concerned about date/setting but rather the theological implications, that the Johannine account is the same event – John has simply re-located the events.
The Roman Catholic view coincides with it theological sense of “both-and”. In a sense the very order of the Readings for Pentecost Sunday outlines the sense of “both-and” as follows:
- Acts 2:1-11: the general coming of the Spirit
- 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13: the variety of gifts given – personal, ecclesial, missionary and more.
- John 20:19-23: the gifts given for specific ministry, e.g., continuation of the priesthood of Jesus is those that the community raises up for that particular ministry – in this case, the Catholic tradition sees the Sacrament of Reconciliation given to particular ministers to celebrate in the name of the community
All are true. Jesus’ promise is fulfilled. What the Church does with its gifts of the Spirit is a question the Church and its people face in every age.