Harvest, Covenant and the Holy Spirit – Pentecost Sunday
Sometimes we are not sure what we celebrate on certain holidays. If you asked Americans what we celebrate on Memorial Day, Independence Day, or Labor Day you might get some very interesting answers, none of which have anything to do with the actual holiday involved. Consider the animated classic “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!” The Peanuts gang gathers to create a Christmas play, but there is no direction. Everyone is off doing their own activity, and Charlie Brown gets exasperated and shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus steps forward and recites the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, and suddenly the entire scene shifts. The focus has returned: the children help Charlie Brown to decorate his tree, and they all come together in a grand finale to sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
The feast of Pentecost is one in which many Catholics would struggle to explain to others, let alone themselves. And yet it is one of the most important feasts of the Church year, the only one to have an octave celebration along with Christmas and Easter. Some may know that the name means fifty days after Easter, and a few others could say that the Holy Spirit came to the disciples fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus – and no doubt all of these things are true. But like so many other matters in our faith, there is much more to this feast.
Originally, the feast of Pentecost began as a harvest festival, a day of joy and thanksgiving for the first fruits of the fields that came fifty days after the celebration of Passover in Judaism. The first fruits of the fields were offered to God as a thanksgiving sacrifice for God providing for the people of Israel in their material and spiritual needs. The feast was originally called the Feast of Weeks, placing it seven full weeks after the feast of Passover.
Over time, the feast became an anniversary. The covenant had been offered and ratified by the Jewish people fifty days after the Passover from Egypt. Hence, Pentecost naturally became the anniversary of the covenant just two hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Like Passover, Pentecost was a pilgrimage festival where Jews who lived outside Palestine would travel to Jerusalem for the feast in order to offer the first fruits of the harvest as a thanksgiving offering for the anniversary of the covenant. In this way, the original meaning of the feast was retained and kept alongside the new meaning.
In the account of the first Christian Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, we can see the concept of the harvest and covenant in the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. After receiving the Spirit, the disciples begin to speak in various tongues so that people from all regions understood what they were saying. Three thousand people accepted the Good News on that very day – the first fruits of the harvest after Jesus’ Passover sacrifice of himself on the Cross. At the same time, the gift of the Spirit is one that had been promised to the disciples by Jesus, and here we see the fulfillment of that promise, indicating a new covenant has been established by God with all people of the world, not just with the people of Israel.
The celebration of Pentecost is not merely remembering an act of the past, but an act that is continually reenacted in our midst. Recall that at the Easter Vigil we received new members into the Church through the rites of initiation. Pentecost is the final journey for our new Christians, completing the time of mystagogy in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Pentecost is intimately connected to Easter, just as Pentecost had been connected to Passover in the Jewish tradition. The Spirit of God is continually at work in the Church, constantly calling us to conversion and calling others to bring new life to the Church by their initiation into the Mystical Body.
Let us ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit to animate us so that we might bring forth a harvest of souls to the new covenant of Christ who renews us in the Paschal Mystery. “Let us pray in the Spirit who dwells within us. Father of light, from whom every good gift comes, send your Spirit into our lives with the power of a mighty wind, and by the flame of your wisdom open the horizons of our minds. Loosen our tongues to sing your praise in words beyond the power of speech, for without your Spirit man could never raise his voice in words of peace or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”