The Feast of Pentecost

By Fr. Robert T. Sears, PhD.

Originally called the Feast of Weeks (seven weeks after the initial barley harvest at Passover), Shavout, was a harvest feast, celebrating the first fruits of the wheat harvest.  It was one of the three major feasts — Passover, Feast of Weeks and Feast of Booths — where pilgrims came from various countries to Jerusalem.  It was a joyous feast, celebrating and offering to God the fruits of the wheat harvest.  Later, as the other feasts, it was connected to an event in Israel’s history, the giving of the Covenant on Mt. Sinai, after the flight from Egypt.  The name Pentecost (Greek for 50 days), was given it later by Hellenistic Jews (who spoke and wrote in Greek).  This is first noted in 2 Maccabees, 12:31-32 and the book of Tobit 2:1.

Luke’s description of Pentecost does not explicitly connect it to the Jewish Covenant feast, or the harvest feast.  Rather it celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples, the birth of the Church.  But the gift of the Holy Spirit expresses the fruitfulness of Christ’s death and resurrection (the Passover) and establishes a new covenant and law – the law of the Spirit.  It thus fulfills the spiritual meaning of the Jewish Feast of Pentecost.

Matthew’s Gospel carries out this connection even more explicitly in chapters 5-7 — the Beatitudes and explanations.  According to J. N. D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew’s Gospel, the Beatitudes present a Christian meaning of the New Holy Spirit Covenant.  Ps 119, the longest psalm in the Psalter, consists of 22 stanzas (numbered by the Hebrew alphabet) each with 8 verses, every verse of which has some synonym for covenant (statutes, decrees, words, commandments, etc.).  Since Pentecost had no octave (it concluded the Passover period), it had eight prayer periods in each of which 3 stanzas of Ps 119 were recited (with one for the end).  As a Christian fulfillment, Matthew presents the eight beatitudes and clarifies each one in reverse order (common in Hebrew oral tradition) by three points.  For example, the last beatitude – “Blessed are the persecuted for theirs is the kingdom of God” continues with three points: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you….Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

“You are the salt of the earth….” (through your suffering witness), and  “You are the light of the world,” (as a candle gives light even as it burns down).

After a statement about Jesus’ words fulfilling the law and the prophets, Matthew goes on to speak about avoiding anger, reaching out to reconcile, and settling with your opponent before court (that is, “be peacemakers!”), about avoiding adultery, divorce and oaths (“be pure of heart”), about avoiding retaliation, love of enemies and almsgiving (“be merciful”).  The central focus is about praying in secret, praying the Our Father and fasting in secret (that is, “we must hunger and thirst for righteousness”).  After that center, Matthew speaks about seeking treasure in heaven, having a generous spirit (a good eye), and trusting in God (“be meek”), about not judging others, being aware of the beam in your eye, and not casting pearls before swine (“mourn for your sins”), and finally about asking, trusting God as good father (“be poor (a beggar) in spirit”).  This is the narrow gate we are to enter, and we will build on solid ground if we actually live according to this word.  The Beatitudes express the Spirit of Jesus, guiding us in Jesus’ way of trust, humility, longing for God, mercy, trustworthiness and peace.  It is the way of God’s love, and it fulfills all God’s commandments.

Pentecost brings to completion the Feast of Easter and brings its gift to fruition, that we might live the life of the Spirit and continue what Jesus has begun.  The Holy Spirit is manifested in works of healing, in words of knowledge and wisdom, in dynamic preaching that touches hearts and turns people to Jesus (as Peter’s preaching on Pentecost), but the more important transformation is interior; the Holy Spirit turns our hearts to humble trust, gratitude and love of God, and to forgiveness and loving sharing with all our brothers and sisters.  If we have not love, all the other works may help others but will profit us nothing (1 Cor 13).  As we celebrate in joy the beautiful gift of the Spirit that is handed over from the death and resurrection of Jesus, we show our gratitude by living our lives according to Jesus’ Spirit and thus glorifying God and building on the rock that is Jesus.