Pentecost was the annual harvest festival of the Jews, and it was one of three feasts that all Jewish males were bound by law to observe in the holy city (Exod. 23:14-17). In Hebrew the day was Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, because it took place on the day following a “week of weeks” — seven times seven days — counting from Passover (Lev. 23:15-16). Originally a harvest festival, the feast was a ritual reminder that God was the source of Israel’s blessings — that they owed their first and best of everything to Him.
Over the centuries, Pentecost had grown in importance, and it had gathered layers of spiritual and historical significance. By the time of Jesus and the Apostles, it had become primarily a celebration of the giving of the law to Moses, a completion of Passover. What God had begun in Egypt, He sealed by the giving of the law at Sinai.
The Apostles were living in expectation. Jesus had told them “to wait for the promise of the Father. . . . You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit. . . . You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (see Acts 1:4-8).
During the forty days after Passover — the forty days after His Resurrection — Jesus appeared to the Apostles and taught them. Yet he trained their gaze forward in time, as if His work was not yet done, as if His Passover awaited its completion.
Pentecost is indeed the setting of the most spectacular scene in the historical books of the New Testament. A sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind. Tongues of fire appeared and rested on the disciples — but did not burn them! The men rushed into the streets and began to proclaim Jesus Christ before the multitude that had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast day. The Holy Spirit arrived in a great show of power, attended by amazing wonders, manifest before a cast of thousands.
Pilgrims had come to Jerusalem from all the nations of the world. They heard Peter preach the gospel and were converted. The means were now in place for the message to reach the farthest corners of Earth. It would be universal in scope. It would be catholic.
As God had once given the law to Moses, so now He gave His own Spirit to the Church. The Spirit was manifest in unexpected prodigies and charisms (from the Greek word for “gifts”) — such as speaking in diverse tongues and understanding those tongues. Mere men were entrusted with the means of salvation, a divine action. Among those charisms was the gift of leadership, authority. It is significant that not everyone preached on the first Pentecost; not everyone led; not everyone taught; not everyone issued the call to repentance. Peter did; the Apostles did. They fulfilled the roles of the office they had been given by Jesus.
Some years before, Jesus had said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful” (Luke 10:2). And the great harvest began, appropriately enough, at Pentecost, the feast of the harvest — the day dedicated to the gathering and offering of firstfruits.
Editor’s note: This article is the third part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c). Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.