Pentecost Sunday – First Reading Commentary

Why the geese?
Wild geese were the ancient Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit .
(click here for more info)
(Photo by Bahram Bayat on Unsplash)

Acts 2:1–11

The celebration of Feast of Pentecost brings together the literary brilliance of St. Luke and the ancient wisdom of Israel. The last element perhaps of more contemporary relevance than we might immediately think.

Luke understood himself to be writing a work of history. He did not follow the same conventions as a modern historian but his were clear and, once understood, could give a deep insight into the people and situations of the day. Luke’s work is in two parts: the “Gospel” and the “Acts.” The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, at the beginning of Acts, is the hinge. Luke, like a good historian of his day, would be very careful to have many links between the two works and indeed between the beginning of Acts and further sections.

The first connection is to wider Jewish history. The feast of Pentecost is a Jewish feast indeed one of the great pilgrimage feasts when Jews were encouraged to go to Jerusalem and offer sacrifice. It was originally a harvest celebration but quickly became connected with the Exodus and the giving of the Law. Pentecost means 50 and it is celebrated by Jews 50 days after the Passover and commemorates Moses bringing the law to the people.

Luke takes great effort to set up the situation. He tells us immediately that this is important:

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
(Acts 2:1)

He is indicating that what follows must be interpreted in light of Pentecost—basically looking at how they will live their lives. In Luke’s gospel when Jesus knew that it was time for him to offer himself up, he wrote:

When the days for his being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.
(Luke 9:51)

After setting the stage, Luke shows us a very powerful manifestation of the power of God:

And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
(Acts 2:2–3)

This is clearly reminiscent of the giving of the law on Mt Sinai:

On the morning of the third day
there were peals of thunder and lightning,
and a heavy cloud over the mountain,
and a very loud trumpet blast,
so that all the people in the camp trembled.
But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and
they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.

Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke,
for the LORD came down upon it in fire.
The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace,
and the whole mountain trembled violently.

The trumpet blast grew louder and louder,
while Moses was speaking and
God answering him with thunder.
(Exodus 19:16–19)

The Hebrew word for Spirit is the same for wind (ruah). This was predicted in Luke’s gospel at Jesus’ Baptism:

John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
(Luke 3:16)

We do not experience the Spirit as spectators. The Spirit must enter us; thus, we are filled with the Spirit. This is the pattern in Luke’s Gospel usually before someone does or says something “inspired”. To take one example, Elizabeth at the very beginning of the Gospel:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb, and
Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,
(Luke 1:41)

The Spirit especially in Acts is given not primarily for personal edification or even wisdom but for the proclamation of the Gospel. As Jesus was being taken up into heaven, he told the disciples:

But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
(Acts 1:8 )

As we saw, the Jewish feast of Pentecost was a pilgrimage feast and Jews from all over the world would seek to attend much as Muslims today seek to make the Hajj to Mecca. The list of places which next follows would have shown the original readers that the whole world had heard the word of God. It would be like us saying that people from all the continents were present. Yet, as always with Luke, there is a further dimension.

Remember that the “inhabitants of Mesopotamia” were the Assyrians and Babylonians who had oppressed the ancestors of the Jews, they were slaves in Egypt and now under Roman domination. The preaching of the Gospel to them fulfills the promise of the prophets that the God of Israel would be a light to all. Remember the words of Isaiah:

Although the LORD shall smite Egypt severely,
he shall heal them; they shall turn to the LORD and
he shall be won over and heal them.

On that day there shall be a highway from Egypt to Assyria;
the Assyrians shall enter Egypt, and the Egyptians enter Assyria,
and Egypt shall serve Assyria.

On that day Israel shall be a third party with Egypt and Assyria,
a blessing in the midst of the land,
when the LORD of hosts blesses it:
“Blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria,
and my inheritance, Israel.”
(Isaiah 19:22–25)

The Holy Spirit in Luke brings together not only the hope that the Messiah would restore the all the tribes and people of the Jews but also the great vision of the prophets that all peoples would become one in the God of Israel. We cannot read this without recognizing that by the very fact of our Confirmations we are missionary disciples.

Given the realities of the COVID-19 lockdown, we may not feel as if we have been noticeably active in this. Yet let us look at the ancient origin of the feast again.

Agricultural feasts celebrate harvests. There were three: the first fruits of Barley, Pesach (Passover); the wheat harvest, Shavuot (Pentecost); and the final harvest, Sukkot (Tabernacles). Each of these however became connected with one of the great events of deliverance:

  • Passover, the freeing of the people from bondage in Egypt;
  • Pentecost, the giving of the law on Mt Sinai; and finally
  • Tabernacles which commemorated the first day of the journey with God in the desert.

There is great wisdom here. The Jews saw the actions of God in connection with food. They knew that they were being nourished by their relationship with the divine. God had many ways of feeding them and he has many ways of nourishing us. We yearn for the Eucharist with Jesus, but have we asked to be fed by the Spirit?

This time of Eucharistic fasting is a wonderful opportunity to be nourished by our relationship with the Holy Spirit. He sustains us by his gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. They are given to all the baptized to be used to build up the Church.

We have seen that many in St. Charles have accepted these gifts by the creative things that have been done by our members during the shutdown. Most appropriate to remember today is that our parishioners wrote a novena for Pentecost that was designed for our present situation and was able to be celebrated on Zoom. This certainly nourished me and has shown me that if we allow ourselves to be fed by the Holy Spirit while we are in this time of testing we shall find ourselves being led by him when we emerge to create the word anew.