The Meaning of Pentecost

Pentecost is not simply a feast. It is an event. THE event in the life of the Church. Unfortunately few Christians really celebrate it. Few Christians see its relevance to their everyday life. Here are some insights on this feast which I have gathered from various sources.

Without the Holy Spirit:
God is far away
Christ stays in the past
The gospel is a dead letter;
The Church is simply an organization;
Authority is a matter of domination;
Mission is a matter of propaganda;
The liturgy no more than an evocation;
Christian living a slave mentality.
(Bishop Ignatius of Latikion at a Council of Churches meeting at Upsala)

1. Introduction

The Feast of Pentecost. The word Pentecost means fifty. The number fifty points to fullness, to ripeness, to a time that is ready for something to happen. This feast has three levels :

A. Harvest Festival. Israel, fifty days – seven weeks to the day – after the sickle was first put to the grain there was a harvest festival. Fifty days after the grain harvest, processions of pilgrims bore baskets of their first fruits to the temple as a thank offering for the harvest. It was something akin to our Thanksgiving day.

B. Torah Festival. In later Judaism (two centuries before Christ) Pentecost was seven weeks to the day after the Passover Sabbath to celebrate the giving of the Law at Sinai where God had made a people for Himself. Akin to our Independence Day.

C. Spirit Festival. Evangelization Festival. Prophetic Festival. Seven weeks to the day after Jesus died and rose from the dead, He breathes the wind and fire of His Spirit upon His Church. This is the fulfillment of the Harvest festival : Fifty days after the sickle had been put to the grain, fifty days after Jesus was hung on a cross, crucified and buried, fifty days after the promised Seed that had been buried in the ground sprouted to life, there was a harvest festival of the resurrection – the reaping of the souls. This is also the fulfillment of the Torah feast : Fifty days after His exodus through death into life, Jesus forms a people, His Israel, His Church. A new covenant, a new people. The Church’s birthday. A day of celebration for the outpouring of the Spirit and the spread of the Gospel to all nations.

The red paraments remind us of Pentecost fire, the fire of Jesus’ love poured out in the Holy Spirit towards others.

II. The Fact

A. The event

The apostles have seen Christ risen from the death and Jesus had given them a mission to announce this event to all nations. But now they have been ordered to stay in Jerusalem waiting something (Acts 1, 6-7) which will give them the strength to do it. The day began in prayer – one hundred and twenty disciples of Jesus gathered probably at the Temple Square, together with the Twelve apostles, for prayer at nine in the morning on the day of Pentecost Jesus, already ascended into heaven, bends down from the right hand of God and blows His Spirit-breath across the glowing embers of His little band of disciples and stirs up a flame that has been burning ever since.

There was a sound of rushing wind . There were tongues of fire. Filled with the breath of the Holy Spirit the disciples opened their mouths and spoke. In his announcement, Peter makes reference to two prophecies – from Joel (3, 1-5) on the gift of the Holy Spirit and from Psalm 16, 8-11 on the resurrection of the Messiah. Evangelization is on! Tongues heavy with the Galilean dialect were loosed to speak in all the languages of the known world. Everyone heard the good news of their sins forgiven in his own language and dialect – Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Judeans, Cappadocians, people from Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphilia, Egypt, Libya, Rome. By the end of the day, three-thousand people had been baptized. Three-thousand believed that Jesus died and rose for them. Three thousand received the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of their sins. Three thousand went back to their homelands and homes, bearing the good news of Jesus.

B. The meaning behind the Event

In order to understand Pentecost we have to go back into the History of Salvation. The first Chapters of Genesis are a prologue depicting for us the wonderful plan of God and man’s progressive defilement of this plan. Genesis 11 is the climax. Mankind leaves the East – the place where the sun sets forth its journey every day, a symbol of God, and immediately tries to build a whole universe without God. “Come, they say, let us build ourselves a town and a tower with its top reaching heaven.” Pride. Arrogance. Why should I be dependent upon someone else? I have to be master of my own actions. I must decide for myself. I know better. I am my own god to myself. I know what is right and what is bad. Result … confusion, chaos, disorientation (= away from the orient). Babel, the ‘gate of the god’ becomes the place of confusion. Men cannot communicate anymore between each other. More than an event this is our own daily bitter experience. At work, in the family, at school, in politics… How much suffering this Babel in our hearts creates… for us and for others!

But God intervenes. He does not leave mankind rotting in its suffering. He calls Abraham and He starts a whole history of salvation. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses. God acts in favor of His people and He frees His people from their terrible slavery in Egypt. Fifty days after coming out from Egypt they arrive on Mount Sinai. Exodus 19. An event of titanic proportions. The mighty Yahweh calls Moses to the Mountain and declares “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites ” (Exodus 19, 3-6). This is where the real life of this people starts. As one Rabbi says : “The real festival of freedom did not come until Shavu’ot (= Weeks or Pentecost) , when Israel would stand before God on their wedding day, complete with a canopy (Mount Sinai), a ketubah (marriage contract), i.e. the Torah, and stipulations of the covenant which included a homeland and a Holy Temple which would serve to maintain the covenant. Even from a spiritual vantage point, although Pesach is when God wrought great miracles for the Jewish people, demonstrating His love and concern, He did not yet completely reveal how it was that we should serve Him. It was not until we received the Torah on Shavu’ot, that spiritual liberation became a reality, for freedom is impossible without the Torah. Thus, Shavu’ot is the culmination of time between redemption promised and redemption realized. …. Pesach is when God promised to marry us; Shavu’ot is the marriage itself.”

That day God engraved His Ten Words on tablets of stone. Why engraved and not written, ask the Rabbis?! While the written word remains external to the paper, they answer, the letters engraved become part of the stone. “The words of the Torah will one day be engraved in the very fabric of our heart, not merely embroidered there, as they are today, where they often fade or fray. They must penetrate to the deepest and innermost chambers of our identity, and in fact according to the prophets, will soon permanently.”

Many traditions accompany this feast. Since originally it was the last of the spring feasts, after the crop was harvested, a portion was brought to Jerusalem and offered along with special sacrifices of thanksgiving at the Temple. The Feast of the Harvest was enriched by Deuteronomy 16, 12 to include a sharing what they had, in keeping with the Torah commands to feed the stranger, orphan, widow and other poor and unfortunate people within the redeemed community. Milk dishes are customary foods, symbolizing the Torah which is likened to milk, according to an allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs. In synagogues, it is customary to read the book of Ruth whose setting also takes place in spring and at harvest time. Ruth was the ancestor of King David, and according to the Talmud, David was born and died on Shavu’ot.

An additional custom connected with this feast is that of spending the night before Shavu’ot in prayer and study so as to be prepared spiritually for the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. The Cabalists, students of Jewish mystical literature, who were the first to introduce this practice, argued that on Mount Sinai, thunder and lightening kept the children of Israel awake during the time Moses was on the mountain awaiting to receive the Torah. Besides, the giving of the Torah is the wedding of the freed community to their God, and so it only fitting that we should be engaged in preparing the ornaments of the bride the previous night. Another reason for staying awake in vigil is that sleep is the taste of death – 1/60th part of death while Sabbath is a “taste” of life – 1/60th of the World-to-Come. Hence we stay awake all night and immerse ourselves in the study of Torah because it breathes life into Man.

This is the framework of our Christian Pentecost. Fifty days after the exodus of Jesus Christ from the tomb, Jesus Christ fulfilled the promise He made before His Ascension and He sent His Holy Spirit. The circumstances which surround the descent of the Holy Spirit echo very vividly the covenant of God with His people on Mount Sinai. On Mount Sinai, God revealed the Torah in booming voices that made Israel tremble. On Mount Zion, with “a sound like the rush of the wind” and “divided tongues as of fire” God gave us the Spirit which enables to live the Good News. Rush of wind is parallel to the thunders and lightening on Mount Sinai. This wind which must have sounded like an on coming roar of a very fast moving train is actually the breath of life which in Genesis created life. The tongues of fire are similar to the torches which the people saw on Mount Sinai.

It is clear that the events in Acts are not just some unassociated miracles without rhyme or reason. When you put all of this together, you come to a very exciting conclusion, and its the very same conclusion that Peter arrived at. “These men are not drunk, as you suppose…. No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.” (Acts 2, 15ff). What did Joel prophesy about? The Prophet had announced that God was going to do something very special in Mount Zion. “And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, there will be deliverance…” (2, 32). If we can connect Mount Zion to Mount Sinai, we will have come full circle. See also Isaiah 2, 2-3.

The Spirit has been be poured out. A new covenant has been established. A new people of God, a new Israel, the Church will emerge.

What are the signs of this new people?

*The tongues are the first sign of this new people : many people of diverse cultures and nations understand the language of the Resurrection of Christ. The curse of Babel is over : men can recuperate unity and communion around this Word. It is the only way given to man to overcome his divisions. Babel is the confusion. Pentecost is the unification.

* The second sign is forgiveness. The prophecy of Joel announces the coming of the “day of the Lord”. A day of judgment and a day of salvation. The judgment is forgiveness. The sign of this forgiveness is the Holy Spirit. In front of the cross, the apostles were in tilt. Big crisis. Peter denies. Others run away. Judas hangs himself. The gift of the Holy Spirit brings them out of this fear and unbelief.

* The third sign is wisdom. Peter received from the Holy Spirit the light to understand the deep meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ : it is not a scandal but the marvelous revelation of the love of God. A plan pre-established from all eternity in God’s infinite wisdom, announced by the prophets and David and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

* The fourth sign is evangelization. The gift of the Holy Spirit takes away from their hearts the fear of death. They are not afraid any more to risk their lives, but with zeal and audacity they announce to their brethren, the Jews, their mistake and they call them to faith in Jesus Christ. The gift of the Holy Spirit has made them sharers in the victory over death. Now they can announce what they are living! We are witnesses, they constantly attest!

Acts 2 hence is a neon sign, announcing the beginning of the Messianic Age. All of the markers that were present at the giving of the Torah, are present at the giving of the Spirit, by whose power we are able to appropriate the Torah and live the Good News. * A “mixed multitude” came to worship the God of Israel. * Voices and torches were seen (and heard). * A sign of 3000 -3000 died when they rejected the Torah at Mount Sinai; 3000 lived when they accepted the Resurrection. * Everyone heard in their own language, “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” in a way which he could understand.

What an event!

III. The Secret

It is the Holy Spirit. “In the Gospel of Luke, we see clearly that Jesus alone possesses the fullness of the Spirit. In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus applies to himself Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.’ The entire life and evangelizing activity of Jesus is guided by the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit comes down upon the Apostles at Pentecost, and ever after sustains the Church’s mission. St. Paul, in his Letters, shows that the Holy Spirit is the source of the new and eternal life which Jesus communicates to his Church. The Spirit gives rise to faith, guides the prayer of Christians, and pours charity into our hearts. For St. John, on the other hand, the Spirit helps the faithful to deeply grasp the truth revealed by Christ. The Spirit is the Paraclete, the Consoler: He defends the cause of Christ, frees us from the sin which separates us from God and helps us to recognize the justice of the Father, who glorifies his Crucified Son in the Resurrection and Ascension” (Pope John Paul II, 1998)

A. What can the HOLY SPIRIT do?

He satisfies our thirst :

“Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life ” John 4:13-14. Everyone is thirsty … everyone wants to fulfill himself, wants peace, joy, happiness. But no one succeeds. Jesus is the answer : He has a water which will become a spring… A water which satisfies you for ever. This spring can be in us : we all think that the problems are outside us; if only things go differently, if only persons are different. This is a deceit. Happiness is an inside job. In his heart man has a spring of death which carries him to death and unhappiness and to evil. That is why nothing can make us happy. Hence the answer is this spring of living water inside us. The Holy Spirit becomes a spring of life – a happiness and a peace which no one can steal. The Holy Spirit transforms slowly the heart of man, putting inside “the same sentiments of Jesus Christ”, the ability to know and love God and to love the brethren and the enemies. Anyone who carries in his heart the Holy Spirit does not feel the evil which others inflict on him, or even if he feels it, this cannot rip him of his joy, because in his heart there is this spring of the love and mercy of God. This inner water overflows and pours itself on others revealing itself as mercy, love, free service…

He resurrects us :

Our reality is similar to the Jews in exile who declared “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off” (Ez.37,11). We are dried up, namely unable to love, unable to do the good we want to do, unable to be in peace. We are cut off , namely we are dead, sad, unhappy. Everything makes us suffer. We do not have life inside us. We keep running away from sufferings, we keep alienating ourselves. The Words says solemnly : “prophesy”. God wants to recreate, He wants to give us life, He wants to make us come out of our graves (the grave is the only place from where no one can come out), and make us taste the resurrection. God fulfills this word in Jesus Christ when He rose him from the death as the first fruit of many brethren, as a sign of what He wants to do with us. In Jesus Christ we can have this gratis!

He operates in us a new heart:

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ez.36,24-28). Our heart is made of stone – a heart full of rebellion against God, always murmuring; even when we obey, we are grumpy and feel it as a burden; we have a heart of slaves who either rebel or obey under compulsion; a heart full of egotism, only interested in ourselves, in perpetual conflict with others. We are sad because we have a heart which does not know how to love. This announcement of a new heart is arriving to us today. God fulfilled it through Jesus Christ. He has showed us what is this new heart :

a. In front of the Cross, Christ did not murmur against God because He trusted His Father and He knew that He would not leave him unto death. His last words were complete trust in the Father : Father I entrust my life into your hands – Luke 23,45. I entrust it you willingly because I know you shall hand it back to me.

b. Jesus loved men, all men, you and me just as we are with all our sins, doubts, betrayals and denials. In exchange of the unjust death He was given, He gave to HIS ENEMIES the forgiveness of His Father : Father forgive them because they do not know what they are doing – Luke 23,24. There is only one way to really love and this is to love the other when the other is your enemy. If you only love the person who does good to you, your friend, you only love yourself – Luke 6,27-35. We can receive freely this heart which entrusts itself totally to God, who is able to love from the depth, who feels compassion and is full of tenderness also for the enemies. This is the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ – Romans 8,9. He can form in us gradually a heart of resurrection, a heart similar to that of Christ!

He creates communion:

Our human reality is like the Tower of Babel – Gen.11,1-9. This episode describes the consequences of sin, namely separation from God, the reality of division, conflict, rift which is inherent in the hostility and life of man. Here we have people speaking the same language and not managing to understand each other. Incommunicability. Here through the work of the Holy Spirit, men of different languages and different nations understand the One Word which calls them and unites them to herself. This miracle is realized every day in the experience of the Church. The Church is the place where God wants to work this miracle. Those who are called, understand the same word : it is as if the Word speaks to each one of them personally. Here men and women that do not agree or are so diverse are held together by this Same Word. This gift of the Holy Spirit wants to make of us members of the Same Body, the Body of the Risen Christ,

He unites : “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body; whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free; and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many.” (1 Corinthian 12:14). The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to overcome our own insularity, our closed-eared deafness to one another. He makes communication possible. He teaches : “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you”(John 14:26). The Spirit “knows the thoughts of God.” He guides : “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come” (John 16:13). The “Paraclete” in the original Greek literally means, “one called alongside to help.” He fills with fire , melting the chill of our cold and hardened hearts and giving us a love towards Christ. He is no idle, empty breeze. He is the proclaimer, the comforter, and counselor.

His FRUITS are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. No one of these fruits can be produced by struggling to change ourselves. They are fruits of the Holy Spirit working in our life.

B. This is how the Fathers of the Church spoke about The Holy Spirit :

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem :

Why did Christ call the grace of the Spirit water? Because all things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects… Like a dry tree which puts forth shots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit strengthens man’s self-control, shows another how to help the poor, teaches another to fast and lead a life of ascetism, makes another oblivious of the needs of the body, trains another for martyrdom.

The Spirit comes gently and makes himself known by his fragrance. He is not felt like a burden, for he is light, very light. Rays of light and knowledge stream before him as he approaches. The Spirit comes with the tenderness of a true friend and protector to save, to heal, to teach, to counsel, to strengthen, to console.

As light strikes the eyes of the man who come out of darkness into the sunshine and enables him to see clearly things he could not discern before, so light floods the soul of the man counted worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit and enables him to see things beyond the range of human vision, things hitherto undreamed of.

Saint Basil:

Is He not called the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, the steadfast Spirit, the guiding Spirit? But his principal and most personal title is the Holy Spirit. To the Spirit all creatures turn in their need for sanctification… His breath empowers each to achieve its own natural end. The Spirit is the source of holiness.

Like the sunshine which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet it is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet is present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him. To all creatures that share in him he gives a delight limited only by their own nature not by his ability to give!

The Spirit raises our hearts to heaven, guides the steps of the weak and brings to perfection those who are making progress. He enlightens those who have been cleansed from every stain of sin and makes them spiritual by communion with himself.

As clear, transparent substances become very bright when sunlight falls on them and shine with a new radiance, so also souls in whom the Spirit dwells, and who are enlightened by the Spirit, become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others.

Through the Spirit we become citizens of heaven, we are admitted to the company of angels, we enter into eternal happiness and abide in God. Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed, we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations – we become God.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria:

Only by the his presence within us in faith could Christ give us confidence to cry out Abba, Father , make it easy for us to grow in holiness and, through the possession of the all-powerful Spirit, fortify us against the wiles of the devil and the assaults of men.

It can easily be shown from examples both in the Old Testament and in the New that the Spirit changes those in whom he come to dwell; he so transforms them that they begin to live a completely new kind of life. Saul was told by the prophet Samuel : The Spirit of the Lord will take possession of you and you shall be changed into another man.

With the Spirit within them it is quite natural for people who had been absorbed by the things of this world to become entirely other-worldly in outlook and for cowards to become men of great courage. There can be no doubt that this is what happened to the disciples.

Saint Irenaeus:

The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin and gave them new life in Christ. Like parched ground which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have an accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord, in his pity for man, who had fallen into the hands of the brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted him to the Holy Spirit.

St. Ambrose:

So, then, the Holy Spirit is the River, and the abundant River, which according to the Hebrews flowed from Jesus in the lands, as we have received it prophesied by the mouth of Isaiah. This is the great River which flows always and never fails. And not only a river, but also one of copious stream and overflowing greatness, as also David said: “The stream of the river makes glad the city of God.” … And let it not trouble you that either here it is said “rivers,” or elsewhere “seven Spirits,” for by the sanctification of these seven gifts of the Spirit, as Isaiah said, is signified the fullness of all virtue; the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and godliness, and the Spirit of the fear of God. One, then, is the River, but many the channels of the gifts of the Spirit. This River, then, goes forth from the Fount of Life.

Vatican Council II:

The Spirit dwells in the Church and in the hearts of the faithful as in a temple. He prays in the and bears witness in them as their adoption as sons. By the power of the Gospel he enables the Church to become young, perpetually renews it, and leads it to complete union with its Bridegroom.


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.