Pentecost seems to be a forgotten feast. Christmas and Easter are mega-feasts but Pentecost comes and goes, hardly being noticed.
Pentecost celebrates the dramatically described coming of the Holy Spirit: "a sound like the rush of a violent wind filled the house . . . divided tongues as of fire . . . everyone heard them speaking in his own language" (Acts 2.1-6).
More dramatic still is the account of the instantaneous turnaround of the no-longer fearful Peter preaching to those who had Jesus crucified and the subsequent conversion of 3,000 people from every part of the land. This is the beginning of the Church's outreach and therefore its birthday.
A brief review of the history of the Hebrew Pentecost may help us. One of three feasts which required pilgrimages to Jerusalem, it was originally a spring harvest festival.
The harvest motif became less important after 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem. It was transformed into a commemoration of the reception of God's law at Mount Sinai.
The harvest festivals began at Passover with the barley harvest. The first sheaf of ripe grain, "the first fruits," was offered in the Temple to ask for God's blessing. Called the omer or wavesheaf, this sheaf was waved in all directions and over the people to acknowledge God's dominion over the whole earth and its inhabitants.
Hebrew Pentecost is also called Shavuot (Weeks) because of the seven weeks between the barley and wheat harvests. The Torah requires the seven-week counting of the omer, from Passover's wavesheaf offering, resulting in the date for Pentecost. This counting expresses anticipation for receiving the Torah.
At the end of the wheat harvest with work suspended, the people went to the Temple to thank God. The central offering was two loaves of salted bread made from the finest wheat according to specific dimensions. It was salted because it represented the people's offering of themselves and their labours to God.
In Scripture, the harvest theme often refers to humanity. The Old Testament tells us, "Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of God's harvest" (Jeremiah 2.30). In the New Testament, Christ is referred to as "the first fruits of those who have died" (1 Corinthians 15.20).
Christ's offering was prefigured in the first fruits of the harvest. Christ's resurrection represents the first fruits of humanity.
As the first sheaf offered to God was an assurance of a good harvest, so even more Christ's offering is a pledge that all who trust in him will be raised from the dead to eternal salvation. The Church is called the first fruits of this worldwide harvest (Romans 8.23; Revelation 14.4).
God freed the Israelites from slavery for a purpose. At Sinai, from a collection of tribes, they became a nation with a special mission: to proclaim the one God and set an example to the whole universe of a God-like way of life. God would be their God and they, God's people.
Christians too have been liberated by Christ for a purpose. They are given the mandate to spread the Good News of Christ to the world. With the Holy Spirit poured out upon them, the disciples were transformed to bold and enthusiastic proclaimers of the Word.
Pentecost was well-known and observed in the early Church (Acts 20.16). Christians did not fast as Pentecost was a celebration and they stood for prayer as a redeemed people.
Today, it continues to be observed in various ways. The most noticeable feature of Pentecost, for us, is the red used in the vestments and in other decor, as well as hymns to the Holy Spirit.
However, I agree that we need to find creative ways to re-animate Pentecost with celebrations befitting the important role of the Holy Spirit in the world and in the Church.
During the Good Friday to Easter Sunday Triduum, Christians enter into the paschal mystery with Christ. Before leaving his disciples, Christ promised them the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost, therefore, completes the paschal mystery, giving us time to put into practice the message of Christ as we live the Ordinary Time of the Church year. Perhaps that is a reason why it drops out of sight quickly.
Another Hebrew name for Pentecost is translated as "the completion of Passover." Therefore, for both Jews and Christians, Pentecost is considered a completion of their central events, Passover and Easter.
However, the ultimate fulfillment of Pentecost will come at the end of time when, at Christ's return, the redeemed will be gathered "as first fruits for God and the Lamb" (Revelation 14.4).
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