This Sunday, Christians throughout the world celebrate the feast of Pentecost. For believers, it’s the crescendo of the Easter season as it commemorates the sending down of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Due to this initial reception of the Holy Spirit, today’s high feast day is often referred to as “the birthday of the Church.”
While all of the above theology sounds very impressive, what does any of it really mean? And how can any of this theology or liturgy help Christian believers or the broader human family today?
An answer to these questions should begin with some context. And so, it’s believed that after Jesus Christ rose from the dead, he spent forty days with his disciples. In these days, he affirmed his followers in the reality of his resurrection. He also retaught them the gospel since they had experienced what he meant by his passion and death and could now understand what he was teaching them about himself and his way of life.
After this forty-day tutorial, the Lord Jesus ascended to the Father. After his departure the apostles waited for nine days. After this waiting, the Holy Spirit was sent as tongues of fire that fell upon Mary and the apostles. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, the apostles were emboldened and began to fearlessly preach the gospel and so began what would become a massive effort of evangelization across the Roman Empire.
It is highly significant that the New Testament records the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jerusalem since earlier Scriptures recount the Prophet Ezekiel wailing as he saw the Spirit of God leave the Holy City as the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.
Additionally, there is strong symbolism in the Holy Spirit coming to Jerusalem on Pentecost. The feast day was a Jewish observance of when God met his people at Mount Sinai forty-nine days after their liberation from Egypt and sealed his covenant with them by giving the Ten Commandments.
While this context can help, the questions still remain. How can this feast day help anyone today?
Last year, I had the blessing of attending Pentecost Mass with some friends in the Pantheon in Rome. As is the church’s custom, at the end of the liturgy, thousands of red rose petals were dropped from the large hole in the roof. I was surprised by how caught up in the moment I was. It was amazing. The sun hit the rose petals and they glistened. They appeared as fire. Thousands fell in what seemed like a rainfall of rose petals. It was a very Catholic display of the Christian faith and was very inspiring to me.
I mention this personal experience because the context and teachings of Pentecost can still inspire believers today. Living the way of love of the Lord Jesus can be difficult and tiresome and everyone needs renewal and rejuvenation. Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit provides the believer with this opportunity.
Energy can replace exhaustion, peace can heal perplexity, and happiness can convert sorrow or misery.
Pentecost is an invitation to the believer to “fan into flame” the gifts she has received. And in seeking to be revitalized in the life of the Spirit, believers will find the fruits of such a life seeking to be nurtured within them. St. Paul lists such fruits as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
For the person of good will, Pentecost can also be an encouraging signpost along the way of life. Seeing the belief and positive work and witness of Christian believers, the person of good will can choose to let Pentecost be an affirmation to her own benevolence and an inspiration to kindness and selfless service.
As the Spirit came upon Mary and the apostles over two thousand years ago, the Church was born into her mission. And the Holy Spirit still comes among believers today, and among all men and women of every people and creed. The Spirit continues to labor among all people seeking to show us the face of mercy and love and to guide us along the true path of reconciliation and peace.
This presence and power among the human family is the assistance we need and the answer to the questions above. This is the needed help that Pentecost offers to everyone today.