Fr Thomas’s article in the Pentecost 2020 edition of the Eastbourne Catholic Churches’ magazine
When the day of Pentecost had come, the Apostles were all together in one place. (Acts 2:1)
We all hear the name of ‘Pentecost’, and we know that it is one of the major feasts of the Church’s year, but it is worth pausing to reflect a little more deeply on it and what it can mean for our lives today and our journey with the Lord.
As that quotation from Acts makes clear, this was not something new — Pentecost was already a feast within the Jewish nation, but it was a feast whose meaning was about to be transformed as Christianity was born.
The ‘Feast of Weeks’ fell fifty days after the Passover, and so gained the Greek name ‘Pentecost’, and this was celebrated as a double feast: it marked the beginning of the harvest when God would be thanked by giving him the first-fruits of that harvest (Deuteronomy 26:1–15), and also the annual celebration of God’s giving the Law to the Sons of Israel through Moses. Both of these illustrated the way the God cared for his people — by making the land productive and so giving them the food they needed to live; and by giving them the law which guided them and was seen as illustrating God’s presence among his people (cf. Deuteronomy 4:1–8). It was for this feast that so many people had gathered in Jerusalem on that day which became the first Christian Pentecost.
If the Jewish feast of Pentecost marks God’s presence among his people, his providing for them, and his guiding them through their lives; the Christian feast of Pentecost marks God’s presence among his people, his providing for them, and his guiding their lives — but doing so in a new and vastly more powerful manner, fulfilling all of the promises of the Old Testament (e.g., Ezekiel 36:26–27).
As Our Lady and the Apostles were gathered together, completing their novena of prayer, they received this powerful new gift from God. No longer an external set of laws, but now a power which reached deep within them; which touched their hearts, and inspired them from the very centre of their beings.
As we hear about the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the first thing which strikes us is the sheer immensity of the power. ‘A sound from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…tongues of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them.’ (Acts 2:2–3) This is God’s power coming upon them in a truly dramatic fashion; working within them to perform mighty works: ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ (Acts 2:4)
We are now given a full revelation of God as the Trinity — as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes as a distinct person, but also comes with divine power — this follows from the revelation of Christ as truly God in the Gospels, now we are shown that the Holy Spirit is also truly God (Catechism of the Catholic Church §732).
The effect which this descent of the Holy Spirit has on the Apostles is immediate and profound. Straight away S. Peter stands up and preaches boldly to the crowds gathered at the Temple for the feast (Acts 2:14–36) — this the same S. Peter who denied even knowing Christ a few days earlier, but he now speaks with the power of the Holy Spirit.
This work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not just a single event, it has continued ever since — Christ had promised that the Holy Spirit would come, and that through the working of the Holy Spirit, Christ would be with us to guide us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20); that the Holy Spirit would guide us and bring us into all truth (John 16:8–14).
This is why we often refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. The Church was founded by Christ to carry out his mission — but if she is to do so, then she needs Christ’s power working in her, supporting her and ensuring that she does not stray into error. This is what is given at Pentecost — and which continues to this day. The work of the Holy Spirit supporting the Church as she continues to proclaim Christ to the world. It is the work of the Holy Spirit which ‘makes’ the Sacraments — as the Priest pours water over a baby’s head or recites the words of Christ over bread and wine, as a man and woman promise married fidelity to each other, in each of these cases it is the Holy Spirit which actually baptises the small baby, which actually transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, which actually unites that man and woman in marriage.
So we see that as those ancient Hebrews celebrated God’s presence and guidance among them in the Law, and when they gave thanks for the fruits of the earth which gave them nourishment, when they did all of this is was pointing forward to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the new Israel. The Holy Spirit now offers us God’s presence in our lives (most especially through the Sacraments); the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth and writes God’s law on our hearts; and the Holy Spirit gives us the nourishment which we need to live a good life in union with God. This is what Pentecost is all about — and as we celebrate it, we should pray fervently for an ever-greater presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful and enkindle in them the fire of thy love.
Send forth thy Spirit and they shall be created. And thou shalt renew the face of the earth.