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Pentecost, renewal and the Church

Archbishop, what is the meaning of Pentecost?

The word Pentecost means ‘50th’. It refers to the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which is held on the 50th day after the second day of Passover. In the Bible it is referred to as the Feast of Weeks and is a holiday. The feast celebrates both the end of the wheat harvest and also commemorates the day God gave the Torah (Law) to the people of Israel. For the Jews it was a very important day. For us it is even more important.

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church, the day that she was first made manifest to the world. It is the day the Holy Spirit was given to the Church. It was the day when the ancient structure of divisiveness in Babel was undone.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says: “At the first Pentecost after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit was manifested, given and communicated as a divine Person to the Church, fulfilling the paschal mystery of Christ according to his promise” (726, 731; cf 1287, also Glossary).

Church and Spirit inseparable

It is important that while the recipients were the apostles and those gathered in Jerusalem, the Catechism says the Holy Spirit and the Church are inseparably tied together. The birthday of the Church is the day the Spirit is given to renew the face of the earth. Thus, the Church and the Spirit are joined in this mission.

We often think of the Holy Spirit as a private possession: the gifts given or the sanctifying grace received by the individual. When the Church thinks about Pentecost and the Holy Spirit, the first focus in not personal, but on the role of renewal and that is cosmic. The response to the psalm says it all: “Send forth your spirit, Oh Lord, and renew the face of the earth”.

In the Gospel of John 20:21–22 we read: “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.” The Catechism comments: “From this hour onward, (the moment of breathing) the mission of Christ and the Spirit becomes the mission of the Church: As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (CCC 730).

Pentecost is about the renewal of the whole creation through our co-operation with God’s action in the Holy Spirit. Our individual disposition to God’s Spirit allows God’s work to be accomplished.

Animated for mission

The Second Vatican Council’s decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, says: “For it was from Pentecost that the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ took again, just as Christ was—conceived when the Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin Mary, and just as Christ was impelled to the work of His ministry by the same Holy Spirit descending upon Him while He prayed.”

The text is rich. It compares three actions of the Holy Spirit: the action on Mary when she conceived and bore a son, the action on Jesus at the beginning of His mission, and the action on the Church. In all three instances the Spirit animates mission and inaugurates a new dispensation. The Holy Spirit is the animating principle of mission. It is the Spirit that leads the Church in the Acts of the Apostles and this animation is in the service of mission.

In the Pentecost text, Acts 2:1–11, it says that there was the sound of violent wind and tongues of fire came upon the apostles and rested on each of their heads and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

If we read Exodus 19:16–18 we begin to understand the fire. On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire.

A new encounter

In Exodus the people were terrified because of the encounter with God. With Pentecost the apostles were transformed from scared, timid and frightened men into missionaries, boldly proclaiming the mysteries of God to all who would hear.

The gift of the Spirit at Pentecost marks a new encounter with God, the giving of a new law: not a law on tablets of stone, but one written in the heart of humans. This is the promise of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise to send an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to guide us to the whole truth. As the law constituted the people of Israel into a people of God, so does the Holy Spirit constitute us into the people of the New Covenant.

So, St Paul will say, the law is no longer central; it is grace through the Holy Spirit. This is where our renewal will come from. This is the invitation of Pentecost. Let us pray for God’s Holy Spirit to fill us anew and lead us into mission for the transformation of our beloved land.

Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen.- Pope St John XXIII

Key message: The Holy Spirit is given to the whole Church for mission. It is the animating principle of the Church.

Action Step: Pray and invite God’s Holy Spirit to come to you and lead you to mission. Let us pray every day the prayer of Pope St John XXIII.

Scripture Reading: Acts 2:1–13