GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So let's look at each one of those in succession.
First, Pentecost was a Jewish feast.
The word in Greek, pentecostē
literally means the 50th.
So it was the celebration of the 50th day after the offering of the sheaf during Passover.
So the first meaning for the festival of Pentecost was a harvest festival.
It was a day where they would offer up the firstfruits of the spring harvest to God in thanksgiving, and because it was a great harvest festival, it was a pilgrimage festival as well.
The law in the Old Testament in the book of Deuteronomy required that every single adult male would come to Jerusalem — it says this in Deuteronomy 16 — and that they would keep not just the feast of Passover every year, but that 50 days later they would celebrate the feast of Pentecost, which in Hebrew by the way was not called Pentecost, it was called the feast of Shebuoth
, which means the feast of weeks.
In other words, the seven sevens, so it was the feast of sevens.
7×7 is 49, so it was seven weeks after Passover.
Then on the 50th day, they would keep this great harvest festival and they would bring bread and they would offer it up to God in the temple along with other sacrifices.
So it was a harvest festival, it was a spring festival, and it was also — and this is really important — in Jewish tradition, a festival of remembrance.
It was a memorial feast where the Jews would celebrate the giving of the law to Israel at Mount Sinai.
So in Jewish tradition, Passover celebrated the deliverance of Israel from Egypt on the night of the Passover with the Angel of Death, and Pentecost, 50 days later, celebrated the arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai in the desert and the reception of the law, the 10 Commandments, on Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus 19-20.
So that's what Jews were doing.
If it's Pentecost day, everybody is in Jerusalem to offer up the spring harvest, but they are also there to remember the descent of God upon Mount Sinai in the giving of the law in the book of Exodus.
So with that in mind we can now answer the second question.
Why does the Holy Spirit descend upon the apostles in tongues as of fire?
Well the answer is really simple.
If you go back to the book of Exodus 19, it says this about the day that the Jews remembered on Pentecost.
In Exodus 19:18, it's describing God coming down upon Mount Sinai to give the Israelites the law.
In verse 18 it says “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.”
So there we have it.
Just as in the Old Testament, the Lord came down from heaven and descended upon Israel in fire to give them the old law, so now too in the New Testament on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles in tongues as of fire, not to give them the old law, which was written on tablets of stone, but to give them the new law, which is written on the tablets of their hearts.
He's now going to put his law within them through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
So this is a very important point because it shows us two things.
First, that Pentecost is like a new Mount Sinai, but secondly, also, that the Holy Spirit is divine.
It shows the divinity of the Holy Spirit, because in the Old Testament it was the Lord — Yahweh was the Hebrew name for God — who descended upon Mount Sinai in fire.
So now it's the spirit who descends upon the apostles in fire at the feast of Pentecost.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
And then finally, the last part of the reading for today, you’ll notice it says:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
So notice here, there are really two parts of the reading for today. The first part focuses on specific gifts of the Holy Spirit—whether it be miracles or prophecy or healing or the discernment of spirits or the gift of tongues or the interpretation of tongues—that are meant for building up the Body of Christ, building up the Church...the Church’s mission in the world as we see, which begins on Pentecost.
But Paul also mentions here the grace of conversion itself, the grace of Baptism—the fundamental gift of sanctifying grace, that makes a person a member of the Body of Christ, which is Paul’s distinctive. — it’s unique to him — it’s his distinctive image for the Church. It’s very common for us to talk about the Church as the Body of Christ, as the mystical Body of Christ—of which all Christians are members. But we sometimes forget that that’s only Paul. It’s only Paul who uses that image to describe the Church as the Body of Christ.
So here Paul’s talking about the grace of Baptism, which also takes place through the Holy Spirit, by which we’re united not just to Christ but to one another...so that whether we're Jews or Greeks—Paul says here—slaves or free men (which are two of the major categories in the first century in the Roman Empire), we are all now one in the Body of Christ through the power, the unifying power, of the Holy Spirit. So you can see real easily why this is such a fitting reading for the feast of Pentecost.
Now I’d like to close out our discussion with a couple of key quotations, though, from the Catechism
that are really helpful for understanding the passage that we’ve just read...and for understanding the theological distinction between what the Church refers to as sanctifying grace and charismatic graces. So in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
paragraph 768, we read these words. This is in the section of the Catechism
on the Holy Spirit, the article of the Creed “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” And it says this:So that she can fulfill her mission
, the Holy Spirit “bestows upon [the Church] varied hierarchic and charismatic gifts, and in this way directs her.”
So you’ll see there, the Catechism of the Catholic Church
quoting the Second Vatican Council, is talking about the reality of these charismatic gifts. And that’s drawing directly on the language of gift, charisma
, that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12. Now what exactly are these charismatic gifts? Well, in paragraph 2003, the Catechism
gives a little bit more detail, and I think this is a really helpful paragraph for understanding the nature and the distinction—not the separation but the distinction—between the different gifts of the Holy Spirit. So this is what the Catechism
says about grace:
Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces
, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces
, also called charisms
after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning “favor,” “gratuitous gift,” “benefit.” Whatever their character—sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues—charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.
Alright, so notice there: the way the Catechism
is distinguishing between these two is simple but really profound. In the Sacrament of Baptism (and other sacraments), we receive sanctifying grace. This is the grace that’s ordered properly toward our own sanctification, i.e. our own becoming holy—our justification, as it also uses there, which means being forgiven of sins and becoming a member of the Body of Christ...being set apart from Original Sin or mortal sin and being set apart for Christ as a member of His Body. Those are sanctifying graces, like we receive in Baptism.
But in addition to sanctifying grace, the Holy Spirit also operates in the soul of the Christian by giving them special charismatic graces that are not ordered primarily toward our own sanctification or salvation but toward the salvation of others—toward the mission of the Church in evangelization. And those charismatic graces, as the Catechism
says, sometimes they can be extraordinary, like the gift of miracles or the gift of tongues. So if you think about in the context of Pentecost in the book of Acts, the gifts of performing miracles and the gift of tongues are specifically evangelical charisms. In other words, they’re ordered toward the conversion of others, especially the pagan world. So as the Gospel goes out into the pagan world, one of the things that miracles and tongues are going to function are as signs of the supernatural character of the Gospel. They’re signs that the Church isn’t just a human institution, but it’s a divine institution.
In fact, in St. Gregory the Great, in his Dialogues—this is Pope Gregory the Great writing the 6th century. In his famous work of Dialogues, which is a kind of category of the various miracles of the saints, he’s very clear about this...that miracles are extraordinary graces of the Holy Spirit that function primarily as witnesses to outsiders, as signs to unbelievers like the pagan world, that Christianity is a supernatural religion. However, there are also somewhat less flashy or fantastic or extraordinary charismatic gifts like faith or wisdom or knowledge or the discernment of spirits. These also serve—think here how wisdom or knowledge would serve in the catechetical mission of the Church, building up the Body of Christ by having the wisdom and the knowledge to explain the faith to teach others. That too is a charismatic gift of the Holy Spirit that’s not ordered primarily toward your or my personal salvation, but toward the salvation of others.
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