May 29, 2020


Pentecost and the Holy Spirit

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, one of the most important feast days of the liturgical year. However, it too often seems to get overlooked. That might be even more true this year when many of us can’t attend Mass as we did in the past.

The feast is often called the birthday of the Church. It’s when the Apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, first began to preach. After Christ’s ascension, they waited together until the Holy Spirit descended upon them in the form of tongues of fire. Fire symbolizes the presence of God. This scene is described in the first Scripture reading of this weekend’s liturgy (Acts 2:1-11).

Many Christians are unaware that Pentecost was, and is, a Jewish feast. It was one of the three pilgrim feasts when all Jewish males were supposed to go to the Temple (see Exodus 23:14-17). The word “Pentecost” is Greek for “fiftieth,” so it was celebrated 50 days after the first day of Passover. Jews also know it as the “Feast of Weeks” and, in Hebrew, Shavuot. Christians, of course, celebrate Pentecost 50 days after Easter.

The Holy Spirit apparently chose Pentecost to send the Apostles out to preach because Jerusalem was filled with Jews on that day. There were Jews from many parts of the world and, as the Acts of the Apostles says, they were amazed that they heard what the Apostles said in their own languages. With so many Jews there, this was a great opportunity to jump-start the Church.

As important as the Holy Spirit was in the beginning of the Church—and remains so today—it’s surprising that Pentecost is the only feast day on which the third person of the Trinity plays an important role. Too often, the Holy Spirit seems to get lost in many Catholics’ devotional life. Obviously, this should not be since the Holy Spirit is God—equal to the Father and the Son, a divine person to be equally adored.

We Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit was with God the Father at the time of creation, and with God the Son in his act of redemption. We believe that the mission of Christ in the world was a joint mission with the Holy Spirit.

John’s Gospel made it clear that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person from the Father and the Son. In his Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel, Jesus promised to send “another paraclete” (Jn 14:16). The Greek word “paraclete” means “counselor” or “advocate.” After his resurrection, Jesus breathed on the Apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit ” (Jn 20:22).

The entire Acts of the Apostles has sometimes been called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit because it shows so clearly how the Holy Spirit worked in and through the Apostles and the early Church, similar to the way the four Gospels tell us about the life of Christ.

But it’s not like the Holy Spirit doesn’t also appear in the Gospels. Matthew’s Gospel tells us in his first chapter that Mary “was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18). Luke’s Gospel tells more details. When Mary asked how she, a virgin, could conceive a child, the angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Lk 1:35).

Luke also tells us that, at the time of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth, Elizabeth “was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Lk 1:41), that Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he spoke at the time of John the Baptist’s circumcision (Lk 1:67), and that Simeon received a special revelation from the Holy Spirit (Lk 2:26).

Today the Holy Spirit is present in the Church mainly through the sacraments as the Sanctifier, bestowing grace upon us in the sacraments. The tradition of the Church also lists 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control and chastity.

And the gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, reverence (piety) and awe in God’s presence (fear of the Lord).

The Holy Spirit’s wisdom is always there to guide us. All it takes is a quick prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit.”

—John F. Fink

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