Every year on the feast of Pentecost we celebrate the first Christians’ reception of the Holy Spirit and their empowerment to be Jesus’ “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). We remember how the Spirit came upon them as “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3), enabling them to speak other languages and preach the Gospel in astounding ways (Acts 2:4-12).
However, if our understanding of this feast stops here, then we’re missing something essential. Pentecost wasn’t just an event that happened 2,000 years ago. No, in a very real sense, it’s repeated again and again every year all over the world, and every fully initiated Catholic has experienced it, whether they know it or not.
Just Like the Apostles
I’m talking about the sacrament of confirmation. Many parishes try to schedule their celebration of this sacrament around the time of Pentecost, and for good reason. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “[T]he effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost” (CCC 1302). More specifically, just as the gift of the Spirit on Pentecost allowed the Apostles to preach the Gospel to the entire world, so too does the sacrament of confirmation empower us today “to spread and defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC 1303).
In other words, the sacrament of confirmation is like our own personal Pentecost. It’s the time when we receive the Holy Spirit just like the Apostles did 2,000 years ago, and we take upon ourselves the same mandate to spread the Gospel that they received. However, this raises a question for us: how does the Church know that confirmation and Pentecost are linked in this way? The opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, where we find both the account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-42) and Jesus’ explanation of its significance (Acts 1:8), don’t say anything about future generations. They don’t say that anybody other than the ones who were present with the Apostles in that upper room would receive the Holy Spirit in this way. As a result, to understand this link, we have to look elsewhere.
Laying on of Hands
If we read Acts closely, we can see that after converts were baptized, they also had to participate in another ritual in order to be fully initiated into the Church: an Apostle had to lay his hands on them and impart the Holy Spirit to them. We read about this rite only a couple of times, but one of these instances tells us everything we need to know about it:
“On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve of them in all.” (Acts 19:5-7)
This passage is short but dense with meaning, and to fully understand its significance, we need to unpack it and compare it to the account of the reception of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost several chapters earlier. Specifically, everything we read about here parallels something that happened at Pentecost: they received the Holy Spirit, they spoke in tongues, they prophesied, and there were about twelve of them. Let’s take a look at each of those similarities and flesh them out a bit.
The First Three
First, the text tells us that after Paul laid his hands on these newly baptized Christians, they received the Holy Spirit, a detail that clearly parallels what happened at Pentecost (Acts 2:3-4). Secondly, we read that these people began to speak “with tongues,” and this detail also has an obvious parallel in the Pentecost account. After the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles, the text tells us that they “began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).
Thirdly, the passage says that these people also prophesied, and the way this parallels Pentecost is a bit harder to see. We normally think of prophecy as predicting the future, and that’s not wrong. That is a large part of what prophecy is in Scripture, but there is more to it than just that. In the Bible, prophecy simply refers to speaking on behalf of God and relaying his messages to his people. For example, the Old Testament book of the prophet Haggai begins with a command to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been destroyed (Haggai 1:1-11), and later on, the prophet encourages the people by relaying God’s message that he was with them (Haggai 1:13). These are clearly not predictions of future events, but they are instances of biblical prophecy.
With this understanding of prophecy, we can see that the Apostles did in fact prophesy after they received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They preached the Gospel to the people around them (Acts 2:11, 14-40), telling them what God had accomplished in Jesus and how he wanted them to respond. In other words, they relayed God’s will to the people, just like Haggai did in the Old Testament, so this was also an instance of biblical prophecy. Consequently, we can see that the first three elements of our passage do in fact have parallels with the account of Pentecost: just like these new converts, the Apostles too received the Holy Spirit, spoke in tongues, and prophesied.
The Twelve Tribes
Finally, let’s look at the last sentence of the passage: “There were about twelve of them in all.” At first, this may seem like an inconsequential detail, a throw-away line with no real significance. However, if we compare it to the account of Pentecost at the beginning of Acts, we can see that it’s actually a really important link between these two events. There, we read that “about a hundred and twenty” (twelve times ten) people received the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:15), and both of these numbers call to mind a key part of the history of Israel.
In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was composed of twelve tribes, but by the first century, most of them had been lost to the sands of history. Only a couple of them remained, and Jews at the time of Jesus were anxiously awaiting the restoration of the lost tribes, as foretold by the prophets (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:3, 6; Ezekiel 37:21-22).
This restoration was an integral part of Jesus’ mission, as shown by his choice of twelve Apostles, so when we read that about 120 people (ten from each tribe) were gathered at the Pentecost, the beginning of the Church, it’s a clear sign that the Church is the new Israel, the restoration of all twelve tribes. Similarly, when Paul laid his hands on about twelve people, they also symbolized the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The symbolic nature of both of these numbers is confirmed by the fact that in both instances, the text is rounding to the numbers it gives us. It says that there were “about a hundred and twenty” people at Pentecost, and Paul laid hands on “about twelve of them in all.” The word “about” tells us that these aren’t exact numbers. Rather, Luke, the author of Acts, was rounding to these numbers, most likely because of their symbolism. He wanted both of these stories to call to mind the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel, so he rounded these figures to ones that would easily fit that mold. As a result, even though the numbers are different, they both symbolize the same thing (the restoration of Israel), so there is a clear parallel between them.
Our Own Personal Pentecost
Once we understand all this, we can see that Acts describes the reception of the Holy Spirit by new converts at the hands of the Apostle Paul in a way that clearly calls to mind the Apostles’ reception of the Spirit at Pentecost. The obvious implication of this is that when we receive this post-baptismal rite, we receive the Spirit just like the Apostles did at Pentecost, and we receive the same mandate to spread the Gospel that they received.
And that is how the Church knows that Pentecost and confirmation are linked. Confirmation is our post-baptismal reception of the Holy Spirit, so when we are confirmed, it’s like experiencing our own personal Pentecost. As a result, when we celebrate this feast, we shouldn’t just celebrate an event that happened in the distant past. No, we should also celebrate our confirmation, our own reception of the Holy Spirit, and we should remember that we too have a responsibility to bring our brothers and sisters to Christ, just like the Apostles did 2,000 years ago.
image: By Pete unseth [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons