Pentecost: The Coming of the Holy Spirit

At Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit of God, first to the immediate followers of Jesus, and then to successive generations of God’s people. The Pentecost event fulfils the promise Jesus made to his disciples that, when he left them to return to God the Father, he would send them ‘another advocate’. Jesus is the first advocate. This other advocate is the Holy Spirit. 

The coming of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning of the Church: Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the Church. In our liturgical calendar it brings to a conclusion the 50-day celebration of Easter.

‘Pentecost’ is the title of one of the major Jewish religious festivals which the early Christian church borrowed from Judaism. The Israelites were instructed to celebrate the Festival of the Harvest fifty days after the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread (Exodus 23:14-17). At Pentecost the Jewish people celebrated the offering to God of the first fruits of their harvest. In later times it became the commemoration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai and of God’s covenant with the Jewish people.

In the Christian Church, Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter Day. Four important happenings are associated with it:

  1. The Holy Spirit comes down on Jesus’ disciples, gathered with Mary his mother. 

  2. The apostles preach in several languages to the many foreigners visiting Jerusalem at that time, and these visitors understand them.

  3. Peter preaches to the people in Jerusalem about Jesus’ death and resurrection - the first proclamation of the Gospel after the Ascension of Jesus.

  4. The first Christian community, the Church, is established.

The Holy Spirit’s coming to the disciples fulfils Jesus’ promise that he would not leave them orphans, but would send them the Spirit to guide them and to be with them and the Church for ever. In Old Testament times the sign of God coming to his people was sometimes the sound of a mighty wind. This is the sign which St Luke mentions, in the Acts of the Apostles, when he describes the Pentecost event: “suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of a violent wind which filled the whole house” (Acts 2.2). 

Then “tongues of fire” appear and separate and settle on the head of each apostle. The apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak different languages as the Spirit gave them power to express themselves” (Acts 2:3-4). By the power of the Spirit the apostles speak languages they had not known, and their hearers – from all over the then-known world – understand them.

With the power of the Spirit in him Peter stands before the people and proclaims the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and invites them to accept Jesus as their saviour. He tells them that what they are witnessing – the apostles speaking all manner of foreign languages - is the fulfilment of God’s prophecy made through the voice of the prophet Joel: “I shall pour out my Spirit on all humanity” (Joel 3.1). He and the apostles are now witnesses to Jesus and his Gospel. Here they are confirmed in the mission which Jesus gave them – to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and all peoples.

That first Pentecost brought into existence the Christian community, the Church, which is endowed with the gifts of the Spirit to carry out the mission Jesus gave it. It is a community open to people of all races and all times. The Spirit lives in the Church and in the hearts of its members. The Spirit guides them with the wisdom of God and encourages them with the love of God.

Christians receive the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of Baptism, and are confirmed in the Spirit in the sacrament of Confirmation. By these sacraments the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in each person and endows that person with special spiritual gifts, which are meant to be cultivated and shared with the rest of the Christian community. Pentecost is a celebration of the good news that the Holy Spirit lives among God’s people.

Paul J. Duffy SJ
Hawthorn Parish