CNEWA Connections: Pentecost

Editor’s note: This weekend, the church marks Pentecost Sunday, traditionally considered the “birthday of the church.” In many ways, Pentecost continues today throughout CNEWA’s world, through the great works of our partners in the field who bear witness to the Gospel. Here, Atonement Friar Father Elias Mallon gives some biblical context and perspective to this Sunday and the spirit that continues to inspire it.      

With Pentecost Sunday, the Easter Season liturgically comes to a close and Ordinary Time begins. The word Pentecost (pentēkostē) comes from the Greek word for 50 and refers to the Jewish feast of Shevuot, or the Feast of Weeks. Shevuot is celebrated by Jews 50 days after Passover; it is the celebration of the first fruits of the wheat harvest (Ex 34:22). We know it was celebrated with considerable merriment (Ruth 3:7 ff.) In Jewish piety, Shevuot is also connected with God’s giving the Torah, the Law, to Moses on Mount Sinai. Lastly, by the time of Jesus, Shevuot was together with Passover and Sukkot (“booths,” “tabernacles”), one of the three pilgrim festivals during which pious Jews would go to Jerusalem to celebrate.

As with Passover and Easter, Shevuot and Christian Pentecost are related in the calendar but rarely fall on the same day. In 2021, Pentecost is celebrated on 23 May (20-21 June on the Julian calendar), while Jewish Shevuot begins at sunset on 16 May.

Pentecost, as celebrated by Christians, is connected with the charismatic event that took place on Shevuot after the Resurrection and recounted in the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-41. As is often the case, a Christian celebration will focus on a particular verse or group of verses in the Bible. The Bible may have different accounts or approaches to the same event (see, for example, the Ascension accounts in Luke 24:50-53 as against Acts 1:6-11). Because the liturgy focuses on one set of verses, some believers come to think those are the only verses, which is not always the case.

Whenever there are different accounts of the same event in the New Testament, each account tends to have a specific theological message. Thus, while phenomenologically the two biblical accounts may be contradictory, theologically they are very often complementary.

The word “spirit” (pneuma) appears a great number of times in the New Testament and has a broad range of meanings. “Spirit” in the Gospel can refer to the inner person. In Luke 1:46-47, Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit [pneuma] rejoices in God.” Sometimes the word “spirit” can be used in what is called an “undifferentiated” way. That is to say, it is used very much like it is in the Hebrew Bible, where, for example, “the spirit of God hovered over the waters” (Gn 1:2). Lastly, the word can be used in a “differentiated” way, referring to what Christians would understand as the third person of the Trinity.

13th century artistic depiction of Pentecost.
A page from a 13th-century Syriac manuscript. (photo: Department of Syriac Studies, Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch)

In John 20:19-22, “on the evening of that same day, the first day of the week,” that is Easter Sunday, Jesus appears to the disciples. We are told “he breathed [pneuma can also mean “breath”] on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ ” The theology presented in John’s Gospel has a different emphasis. The Spirit here is intimately connected with Jesus. In John’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus promises he will not leave the disciples orphans (14:17) but he will ask the Father to send an Advocate (paraklētos, Paraclete, Comforter) to be with the disciples and remind them of all Jesus taught. In John 16:7, Jesus says “the Advocate will not come,” unless Jesus goes and sends it.

For John, the Advocate is intimately connected with the risen Christ. John’s great scheme of salvation has the Word descending and becoming flesh (1:14), being “lifted up” on the cross (12:32), rising from the tomb, ascending to glory at the Father’s right hand, from where the Advocate is sent.

“If for John the Holy Spirit is the Advocate, the Comforter, the ‘breath’ of Christ, that same Spirit is for Luke a ‘power,’ a driving force that compels those who receive it to go out and give witness, to preach the risen Christ.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

John wants to stress the unity of the one great saving act of God in Christ. And so, the Spirit does not merely come; Jesus breathes it out on the disciples on Easter. When raised to the right hand of the Father, he asks the Father to send it. The stress is on unity and radical continuity. Jesus, as promised, never leaves his disciples orphans.

Luke has a different approach. For Luke, the Spirit is connected with power (dynamis). Before the Ascension, Jesus tells the disciples, “you shall receive power [dynamis] when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8). We are told the disciples after Pentecost witness with great power (4:33). When Peter speaks to Cornelius, he mentions how “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power [dynamis]” (Acts 10:38).

If for John the Holy Spirit is the Advocate, the Comforter, the “breath” of Christ, that same Spirit is for Luke a “power,” a driving force that compels those who receive it to go out and give witness, to preach the risen Christ. What for John in the Upper Room is a gentle breath, for Luke is a mighty wind (pnoē biaios). What happens to the disciples in private, “behind closed doors” (Jn 20:19), is an international event on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2:5-12). In a very important way, John and Luke show us two very different aspects of the coming of the Spirit. John presents the sending of the Spirit in its private, quiet, intimate side, uniting the believer with Christ and the life of the Trinity. Luke, on the other hand, presents the sending of the same Spirit in its charismatic, powerful, public — indeed international — side, a driving force spreading the Gospel to the four corners of the Earth.

While it is understandable that most believers would limit the sending of the Spirit almost exclusively to Luke’s account in Acts, it would be a great loss to overlook the sending of the Spirit as found in John’s Gospel.

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