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Pentecost Sunday

By Fr. David M. Petras

Pentecost originally meant the fifty days following the feast of Pascha. For the Christians, these fifty days were a joyous celebration of the resurrection of our Lord, corresponding to the Jewish Feast of Weeks. At first, the fiftieth day simply ended this period of rejoicing. However, it later became a feast of its own. In the time of the Apostles, the fiftieth day was a feast of first fruits. Passover began the harvest. However, in some Jewish circles, it was already becoming a feast of the Covenant of Mt. Sinai. In the Acts of the Apostles, we already see that the fiftieth day (Acts. 2:1) after the Passover, the Holy Spirit came down upon the Christian community in the form of tongues of fire. It was only natural, then, that Christians, would replace the commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses with the fast of the giving of the Spirit to the faithful by Jesus. This helps explain the beginning of the Gospel of St. John, which is read on the Sunday of Pascha, "From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (Jn 1:17).

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was manifested under two forms: wind and fire. That Luke intended these to be symbols is clear from the way he de-scribed them: there was a noise "like" a strong, driving wind, tongues "as of fire appeared. The experience in the upper room on Pentecost was a mystical experience within the soul that had a physical counterpart that affected the disciples' hearing and sight. This experience was "ineffable," that is, unable to be expressed in word or thought, so Luke used comparisons, "like a wind," "as of fire." Here again the mandate of our Lord to baptize the whole world is reaffirmed. This is perhaps why Luke relates the signs of the coming of the Spirit to John the Baptist's prophecy, "I am baptizing you in water, but there is one to come who is mightier than I .... He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire" (Lk3:16).

Removing the curse

The Holy Spirit came down in the form of "tongues" of fire, showing that the gift he would give his preachers was the ability to speak many languages ("tongues"). This gift was to help spread the good news of Christ's resurrection. It was also the removal of an ancient curse. In the story of the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), humankind had become very proud, and thought that they could build -a civilization without God. Since the world is created only through the word of God, their languages were confused so that they could no longer communicate. With the coming of Christ, the word of God, this ability to communicate was restored, both physically, through "communion" with the body and blood of Christ, and through the Gospel, the message of salvation. The glorified Jesus then sent the Spirit to complete this work of the restoration of communication, for the Spirit "will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will declare to you the things that are coming" (Jn 16:13). The Byzantine Liturgy proclaims that Pentecost takes away the curse of Babel, "When the Most High descended and confused tongues. He scattered the people, but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity." (Kontakion)

The Feast of Pentecost is a celebration of God with us. The historical mission of Jesus has been completed, but he has sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit to continue to lead us and give us life. The Spirit does not give charisms to people to prove his power, but only to further under-standing and love. Wherever there is goodness, it is a result of the working of the Holy Spirit among the people of God. St. Paul wrote, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5:22). The Spirit is truly working in our lives and there are many manifestations of his presence, if we are willing to reflect upon our lives with the eyes of faith.

One feast of life

In the Gospel of St. John, the Holy Spirit is given on the day of resurrection itself. Jesus appears to the Apostles through closed doors, breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22). Here we see that the Pentecostarion is one feast, celebrating one mystery, the gift of life. Through his resurrection, through baptism, through the glorification of Jesus at the right hand of the Father, through the Eucharist, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus fulfills the mission given him by the Father, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). John Chrysostom once said, "It is al-ways the Passover" (In Timothy 5.3), but now we see that it is always Pentecost, the Spirit is always with us. "The Holy Spirit is light and life, the living spring mystically gushing forth, the Spirit of wisdom and Spirit of knowledge, good, upright and understanding, majestic and purifying from sin. He is God and deifies us; fire proceeding from fire, speaking, acting and distributing gifts" (Sticheron at the Praises, Matins of Pentecost Sunday).

The Sunday after Pentecost is also connected with the feast. Now called the Sunday of All Saints, it was originally the Sunday of All Martyrs. St. Luke speaks to those who would be martyred for the faith, "When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you at the moment what you should say" (Lk 12:11-12). Since the Spirit was the giver of sanctification, he was especially present for the martyr, a Greek word meaning "witness," who proclaimed his or her faith in Christ before the world. Not all of us may become great saints, but each of us will in some way have to surrender something very precious to us, some habit or possession or person, in order to choose Christ. This is the road to sanctity for every person, as Jesus Promises in the Gospel of All Saints' Sunday, "Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life" (Mt 19:29).

 


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