The feast of Pentecost, known as the birthday of the Church, marks the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the bestowal of the Spirit’s gifts that enables the apostles to leave the Upper Room and preach the Gospel. The grace imparted by the Spirit causes the apostles to proclaim the Good News, and in turn, baptize over three thousand souls. However, it is important to bear in mind that the significance of Pentecost in the liturgical calendar does not merely commence on that first Pentecost Sunday in the Upper Room, but can be traced back to the time of Moses.
As does several Catholic feasts, Pentecost derives its origin from the tradition of the Jews. It originally stems from a Jewish Festival called the “Feast of Weeks,” otherwise known as the Shavu’ot. The Feast of Weeks, deriving from the Greek word Pentekostos, meaning “fifty,” occurs fifty days after the Passover, just as we celebrate Pentecost fifty days after Easter. The Feast of Weeks bears special significance for Catholics if examined on three levels: agricultural, in light of the exodus account, and in light of the New Testament.
On the agricultural level, the Feast of Weeks commemorated God’s providence for his people. It celebrated the harvest of the wheat, which was the last grain harvest. The people of Israel would reap their “first fruits,” bringing them to the Temple for the priest to bless them. The Jews regarded this feast to be so important that they would travel on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to make their offering in the Temple.
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On the Exodus level, the Shavu’ot soon came to commemorate the covenant God established with his people through Moses on Mount Sinai as many believe that Moses received the Law on Sinai during the Feast of the Weeks. The ratification of this covenant is expressed through the giving of the Law, the Torah, and symbolically seen as the birth of the children of Israel.
During the bestowal of the covenant, the Holy Spirit reveals his presence on Sinai for the Exodus account of Sinai provides many striking symbols of the Holy Spirit which later can be compared to Saint Luke’s account of the descent of the Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles. Exodus relates when Moses spoke to God on Sinai, God revealed his presence to the Jews by means of wind and fire. Further, a cloud veils Mount Sinai when Moses remains on the mountain for forty days and nights, conversing with God. This cloud, symbolic of the shekinah, the “glory cloud,” which rests upon the Ark of the Covenant, is the dwelling place of God. Just as the shekinah manifests God’s presence among his people, so too does the cloud on Sinai signify God’s presence. In the New Testament, the shekinah will be associated with the Holy Spirit, just as the cloud on Sinai may be viewed as a symbol of the Spirit.
The events that take place on Mount Sinai further hint of the sending of the Spirit. When Moses receives the commandments, Exodus speaks of wind and thunder. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says that there is “fire, thunder, and wind preceding the promulgation of the Ten Commandments and the conclusion of the Covenant.” He continues saying that Mount Sinai was “wrapped in smoke because the Lord descended upon it in fire.” Both fire and wind are present in the Upper Room and are symbols of the Holy Spirit.
Only after Moses receives the commandments and promulgates the covenant does the Spirit descend. God tells Moses to gather seventy elders of the people of Israel and bring them to the tent of meeting where Moses converses with God. Moses complies to God’s command, and the “Lord came down in a cloud” and spoke to Moses. God then “took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it into the seventy elders” (Numbers 11:16-20; 24-25). Just as the Spirit descends upon the elders of Israel after Israel receives the law, so too will he descend upon the Apostles after Christ proclaims the new law.
With the coming of Christ, Jesus gives the new law and establishes the new covenant. Christ ratifies this covenant at the Last Supper during the institution of the Holy Eucharist. By proclaiming “this is my blood of the new covenant” (Mk. 14:24) at the Last Supper, Christ echoes the words of Moses after the establishment of the Mosaic covenant during the Passover: “this is the blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:8).
The Feast of Pentecost now becomes the new Sinai for it marks the promulgation of the new covenant. Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor reflects on this saying,
Saint John Chrysostom likewise observed that the New Law was promulgated at the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven on the day of Pentecost, and that the Apostles “did not come down from the mountain carrying, like Moses, tablets of stone in their hands; but they came down carrying the Holy Spirit in their hearts … having become by his grace a living law, a living book.”
Instead of the Mosaic covenant, displayed through the giving of the law in stone, the law of the new covenant as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reflects in his 2011 Homily on Pentecost Sunday, is one “which the Spirit ‘writes’ in the hearts of all who believe in Christ.”
The promulgation of the new covenant, marked by the descent of the Holy Spirit under the symbols of a strong wind and fire, truly becomes the moment when the apostles, like the judges who gathered in the tent of meeting, obtain the grace to instruct and lead the Jews. On the first Pentecost, those in the Upper Room receive the gifts of the Spirit promised to them by Christ and foretold by Isaiah. Strengthened by these gifts, the Apostles gain the courage to leave the Upper Room and boldly proclaim the Gospel. By doing so, the apostles obey Christ’s mandate to make disciples of all nations.
The significance of the Shavu’ot now acquires a new dimension. Instead of celebrating the first fruits of the earth, Pentecost Sunday commemorates the first fruits in the harvest of souls. No longer are the faithful bound by Mosaic Law and required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to offer the sacrifice of grain in the Temple. The new law of Christ demands something greater. It necessitates that we offer our lives in thanksgiving for this gift of Faith by proclaiming the Good News. For this reason, Pentecost is referred to as “the birthday of the Church,” for on that day the Holy Spirit gave the Apostles the gifts of the Spirit, the grace they needed to proclaim the new covenant of Christ and so continue Christ’s mission of bringing man to the Father.
Though we celebrate Pentecost every year, it is important to remember that the descent of the Spirit on that first Pentecost Sunday is not a solitary event, but one that re-occurs throughout history. Pope Francis reflects upon this in his 2014 Homily on Pentecost Sunday. He says that the descent of the Spirit in the Upper Room “does not remain only limited to that moment, but is an event that is renewed and renews itself again. Christ, glorified at the right hand of the Father, continued to realize his promise, sending the Holy Spirit to enliven the Church who teaches us, reminds us, and makes us speak.” The Spirit enlivens the Church through His gifts, bestowing upon her members the grace to evangelize, and thus reap a bountiful harvest of souls. In this way the Spirit continues the work of the Apostles and causes the new covenant of Christ to be promulgated until the end of times.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Pentecost” was painted by El Greco in 1610.