It is easy to forget that Easter is not an end to our Lenten journey but itself a passage to Pentecost.
Pentecost can seem like such a world apart from the end of Lent and the start of Easter. About a month ago, we were concentrated on what one Catholic philosopher calls the ‘thickness of the sensible’—the body of Christ, the blood poured out from us on the cross, the physicality of His death, and the wounds of His resurrected body. It is tempting to think of Pentecost as being the opposite of all this: not about the body, but the Spirit, focusing us not on the tangible but the transcendent.
In a way, this is the point. In the Incarnation, heaven touched earth. That changes everything. It means that the invisible God dwelled in the flesh. It means that the Spirit of God can dwell in the temple of our bodies. And, critically, it reminds us that in order to have one we must have the other. That is, in order to have the Spirit we must have the body of Christ, to paraphrase the saying often attributed to St. Augustine. As he put it in Letter 185,
But those with whom we are arguing, or about whom we are arguing, are not to be despaired of, for they are yet in the body; but they cannot seek the Holy Spirit, except in the body of Christ, of which they possess the outward sign outside the Church, but they do not possess the actual reality itself within the Church of which that is the outward sign, and therefore they eat and drink damnation to themselves. For there is but one bread which is the sacrament of unity, seeing that, as the apostle says, “We, being many, are one bread, and one body.”
The story of Pentecost reinforces this message. Consider that following the Ascension the disciples returned to the temple, according to the account at the end of Luke: “They did him homage and then returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God” (Luke 24:52-53). Given that Luke wrote Acts as a sort of sequel to his gospel we are right to read this in conjunction with the Pentecost story at the beginning of Acts.
Now think about what an extraordinary thing it is that the disciples went back to the temple. Didn’t Jesus declare that He was the true temple? Didn’t He come to replace the Old Testament sacrifices with new rites? (As that hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas puts it.) But the disciples nonetheless went back to that ‘old-time religion.’ And, as Luke presents it, this was not some regression, but more of a joyful response to the Ascension and perhaps even a preparation for Pentecost.
This isn’t to say all of us must visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But it does serve to illustrate how radically insistent Christianity is in joining body and spirit, sensible and intangible.
Fortunately, the Pentecost account contains other examples of this theme that are more practical for us to emulate. At the start of Acts, the writer reports two important details about the early disciples. In Acts 1:14, he writes, “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
From this we can gather three important facts: First, the disciples prayed together in one community. Their unity was comprehensive: it encompassed not just the disciples and not just luminaries like Mary but also ‘some women’ and Jesus’ ‘brothers.’ Second, this unity was intensely localized: the previous verse notes that they were not only in the City of Jerusalem but the ‘upper room.’ Because of this, the early community was also a visible one. The text does everything to stress this unity, stating that they ‘devoted themselves with one accord.’
Second, it also significant that Mary was present. In the wake of the Ascension, she was the most obvious visible reminder that Christ had become Incarnate on earth. The reality of the Incarnation was enduring, not passing away.
Third and finally, they devoted themselves to prayer. The Greek word here, proseuchē, which often refers to prayer in ritualized settings, like the synagogue or places that were meant to be ‘substitutes’ for synagogues, according to one survey of its usage in the New Testament.
But there is one more action the disciples take before Pentecost. The rest of the first chapter of Acts tells how they selected from among themselves one to take the place of Judas, restoring them to their full complement of Twelve. The hierarchal, institutionalized nature of the Church is thus affirmed right before we witness the outpouring of the Spirit—something that a lot of Christians oftentimes erroneously associate with egalitarianism and individualism.
Of course, the actual story of Pentecost doesn’t fit with those preconceived notions. As told in Acts 2, the wind storm that descends from heaven fills the upper room of the house where the disciples are. And the tongues of fires alight over their heads alone. Pentecost is a story about how God poured out His spirit through the hierarchy of the visible Church.
This message is reinforced by the end of Acts 2, where, after Peter’s sermon, those who convert submit to the authority of the Church:
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. … Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes (vv. 42, 46).
Here we see a continuation of the way of life before Pentecost. And, now, in addition, there is the ‘breaking of bread’—a reference to Eucharistic communion. Also, incredibly, even after Pentecost, the new believers are still meeting in the old Jewish temple.
The biblical account of Pentecost thus puts corrects the many lies and false assumptions about how we as Christians are to encounter the Holy Spirit. Some people think being spiritual means not being religious. To the contrary, Acts shows the disciples at the old temple, engaged in ritualized prayer and meals, and reconstituting their institutional hierarchy. Some idolize individualism. Acts emphasizes the community of believers. And, finally, some people think the body is opposed to the Spirit. Acts shows us one is needed for the other.
So we do not have to forget or discard our experiences of Lent and Easter as we head towards Pentecost. Rather the opposite: the best way to prepare is to commit ourselves more earnestly to the Body of Christ in whatever way possible—whether through communal prayer, frequent reception of the sacraments, or devotion to the Eucharist, or other devotions centered on the reality of God Incarnate.