Pentecost is one of the great feasts of the Church. It marks the end of the Easter season and celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. It is sometimes referred to as the Birthday of the Church. It focuses on the role and importance of the Holy Spirit as the bringer of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.
The term “Pentecost” comes from a Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks which was held at the close of the grain harvest, fifty days after the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. During the fifty days spent celebrating the Resurrection, there was no kneeling for prayer and no fasting. This time was looked upon as one great Sunday.
Then in the fourth century, the fiftieth day came to be regarded as the seal at the end of this period, with the Ascension of the Lord and the Descent of the Holy Spirit as twin themes. By the fifth century the two distinct feasts of Ascension (after forty days) and Pentecost (after fifty days) had merged. A rite of Baptism at the Vigil of Pentecost, at which candidates wore white robes, gave rise to the term “Whit/Sun” in the English-speaking world.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a vivid picture of the first Pentecost. The Apostles were all gathered in one place when the Spirit descended upon them, an event accompanied by dramatic sights and sounds and later, healing miracles. There was a terrifying noise and a strange light like tongues of fire, and the Apostles were given the gift of speech in foreign tongues. Whoever heard them preaching about he marvels of God, did so in their own native language. Clearly, Luke wanted to show that the Church carries out its mission in the power of the Spirit – the very breath of God!
One of the many striking consequences of Pentecost is the very unexpected sequence of events that follows. We have an upper room filled with prayer and some bewilderment. We have people there who are in the process of recovering from the dreadful shock and disappointment of the Lord’s death. The closer they seem to have been to him the more quickly they abandon him. But now they are slowly coming back, recovering lost ground, finding again in one another the resources to go on. Suddenly, they remember the promise he made them about sending his Spirit and being with them until the end of time and they are no longer afraid.
And so they burst out of the room and start preaching to all and sundry the Good News about Jesus and his kingdom – and the rest, as they say, is history!