Pentecost: Detonation and Fulfillment, Humility and Unity

On the Readings for Sunday, May 24 2015, Pentecost Sunday

• Acts 2:1-12
• Ps 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
• 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13 or Gal 5:16-25
• Jn 20:19-23 or Jn 15:26-27; 16:12-15

“The Christian Church is the detonation of that explosive for which a train had been prepared through the centuries,” wrote Monsignor Ronald Knox in a collection of essays titled Stimili (Sheed & Ward, 1951). “Everything that happened before the day of Pentecost was a kind of dress-rehearsal for the day of Pentecost.”

Many of the Church Fathers contemplated how Old Testament events foreshadowed or pointed toward the dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room and the events immediately following.

This was interpreted by some of the Fathers as a reversal of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Responding to man’s arrogant attempt to build a tower “with its top in the heavens”, God came down and confused the language of men so that they could not understand one another. Without the ability to communicate, mankind was scattered “abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” At Pentecost, God again descended and again caused confusion—but it was confusion caused by awe and astonishment, for men “from every nation under heaven” could understand one another.

“The church’s humility,” wrote St. Bede, “recovers the unity of languages that the pride of Babylon had shattered.” Man cannot, by his own efforts and intellect, achieve heaven; it is a grace and gift granted by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A second foreshadowing was the span of time between the first Passover and the arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai. The book of Exodus does not provide an exact time, stating the people arrived at Sinai on “the third new moon” (Ex. 19:1). Later, however, the feast of weeks, which was celebrated seven weeks after the first harvest was cut (cf., Dt. 16:9; Ex. 23:16; Lev. 23:9-21), was connected with the Exodus. Eventually, a span of fifty days was reckoned between the Passover and the feast of weeks, also known Pentecost (Greek for “fiftieth”).

Christ was the final and perfect Passover lamb who had, in fact, died during the feast of the Passover; by his Resurrection, he was also “the first fruits” from the dead (1 Cor 15:20). Therefore, Pentecost was the celebration of the divine harvest, brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, Pentecost had become associated in Judaism with the giving of the Law and the establishment of the Mosaic covenant at Sinai. The parallels here are both evident and significant: the new people of God, the Church, is formed by Christ (who is the New Moses) and filled by the Holy Spirit (who is the soul of the Church). The new and everlasting covenant is established by the law of Christ—that is, the law of Love—which in turn we are able to live because of the grace and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The Church, St. Paul states in today’s Epistle, is the Body of Christ, having many parts but being one by virtue of one Spirit and one baptism (1 Cor 12:12-13).  The Church was not an afterthought or a Plan B, but was at the heart of the Father’s plan of salvation from the beginning; it was, the Catechism notes, “the goal of all things”, because it is the household of God, in which man enters into saving communion and is filled with the divine life (CCC 760).

Pentecost, then, is the birthday of the Church—a birthday giving new birth to mankind, regardless of race, sex, or social status. We are meant, Monsignor Knox wrote, “to find ourselves as members of a Spirit-filled, Spirit-actuated Body; if we remain in its unity, we know that the life of the Spirit, is, however imperceptibly, expressing itself in us.”

That unity, however, is often threatened by the temptation to save ourselves and to achieve wholeness apart from God. The feast of Pentecost reminds us that we have been saved from the land of sin by the Son, filled with divine life by the Holy Spirit, and called to the Promised Land by the Father.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the May 31, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1156 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.