• Acts 2:1-11
• Psa. 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
• 1 Cor. 12:3b-7, 12-13
• Jn. 20:19-23
After many years of leading a weekly Bible study at my parish I am more convinced than ever of a simple fact: if you do not appreciate the Old Testament, you will fail to understand nearly anything and everything in the New Testament. The New Testament is like a treasure chest of priceless jewels, but without the map of the Old Testament, it is very difficult to find and open that chest. Saint Augustine put it this way: “The New lies hidden in the Old and the Old is unveiled in the New.”
Today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles, which describes a pivotal, transforming event in the early Church, is a perfect case in point. Even though The Acts of the Apostles and the third Gospel were written by a Gentile, Saint Luke, they are deeply rooted in the history and beliefs of the Jewish people. And Luke assumed that his readers would know and appreciate the key events, beliefs, and practices of the Jews.
First, there is the feast of Pentecost, which the Israelites called “the feast of weeks”, a reference to the seven weeks from the Passover to the celebration of Pentecost (cf., Lev 23:9-21; Deut 16:9-12). The number seven signified completion and fullness. Originally, the feast focused on giving thanks for the harvest; it later was associated with the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, traditionally believed to have occurred fifty days after the first Passover in Egypt. The description of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon those in the Upper Room is concise, but is clearly meant to invoke a connection to the great theophanies, or appearances by God, that took place on Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Herob), which were accompanied by noises from heaven, strong winds, and fire (Ex 19:16-19; 1 Kngs 19:11-12; cf., CCC 696).
In addition, the breath or voice of God is closely associated with fire: “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire” (Ps 28:7). Following the Resurrection, as recounted in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, the Word made flesh, came to the apostles, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” He thus gave them the authority to forgive and absolve sins. On Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit—marked by the appearance of “tongues as of fire”—so that the disciples could speak in different languages and proclaim the Gospel to all men. This gift of tongues was not so much about spiritual ecstasy as it was about spiritual transformation, which led to the bold, public communication of person, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:14-47).
Jesus had promised the disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them “all things” and help them remember his words (Jn 14:26). Likewise, Paul told the Christians at Corinth—a difficult and unruly bunch!—that no one can proclaim, “Jesus is Lord,” unless he is led by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son so as to give witness to the Son and to draw men to the Father. “The gift of the Spirit,” states the Catechism, “ushers in a new era in the ‘dispensation of the mystery’ the age of the Church, during which Christ manifests, makes present, and communicates his work of salvation through the liturgy of his Church, ‘until he comes.’” (CCC 1076). Thus Paul wrote, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” The Holy Spirit preserves the unity of the Church, and he is described as the soul of the Mystical Body of Christ (CCC 809).
The feast of Pentecost, then, is a celebration of the harvest—the spiritual fruits given by God—and the recognition of New Law of Christ, which is established in divine love and through the Holy Spirit. As Saint Leo the Great observed, we “may easily perceive that the beginnings of the Old Covenant were at the service of the beginnings of the gospel and that the same Spirit who established the first established the Second.”
(This "Opening the Word" column originally in a slightly different form in the May 11, 2008, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)