Pentecost Sunday Holds Both Traditional and Modern Significance
Christians celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit 50 days after Easter on the Pentecost.
“They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” Acts 2:3-4 (NIV)
Pentecost is approaching on June 8, to conclude the Christian Easter season. This holiday shares its name and date with the Jewish feast, 50 days after Passover, that commemorates the giving of the first covenant at Sinai, and the Jewish people’s commitment to live as God’s children. This year it also shares its date with an unusual prayer meeting to be held at the Vatican in Rome.
The History of Pentecost
According to tradition, after Jesus was resurrected from the dead on Easter Sunday, he spent 40 days appearing to his followers near Jerusalem and teaching them how to carry on his teachings without him. Then he ascended into heaven, telling them to return into the city and wait for a special gift to come to them: a counselor who would tell them what to do. Ten days later, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the gift arrived as promised. A wind began to blow in the room where they were, and flames appeared above them. All the followers received the gift of the Holy Spirit, a counsel from within.
This gift was demonstrated by the ability to speak in languages none of them had ever learned. The followers went out into the city and began to speak passionately to the Jewish people gathered from all over the world to celebrate the Jewish Pentecost holiday, and everyone could understand them in their own language. Three thousand of the gathered Jews found life and hope in the words that day, and converted to this new religion soon to be known as Christianity.
The Christian holiday of Pentecost falls on the 50th day after the Resurrection, counting Easter Sunday. This has been observed as a holiday since early in the history of the Christian church, within the first century AD. It is considered the birthday of the church, the beginning of God’s new covenant through Jesus, for everyone, in parallel to the giving of the first covenant at Sinai, for the chosen people, through the law.
For this reason, celebration of Pentecost is meant to be joyful, and full of life. Interesting traditions through the years include the scattering of rose petals from the ceiling in Italy, to represent the tongues of fire; the blowing of a trumpet in France, to represent the holy wind; and the carrying of green branches and flowers in Russia. The English entertain themselves with horse races on this day.
Contemporary Christians observe Pentecost as an outpouring of God’s mighty power through the gift of the Holy Spirit. For Catholics this day concludes a nine-day period of prayer, or novena, asking the Holy Spirit to bestow his gifts. The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit manifested in the lives of Christians, as elaborated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, are “wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.” The Cardinal goes on to say that believers already have these gifts, and that they serve to bring us closer to God.
The Pentecost Today
This year on Pentecost, Pope Francis will host a special prayer meeting at the Vatican. During his Middle East visit in May, he invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbasand and Israeli President Shimon Peres to join him in Rome to pray for peace together. The date agreed upon by all parties was settled as June 8. This is mostly a symbolic event because it is not an official mediation talk but is significant nonetheless. In his first year as the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope has shown he takes seriously his role as a bringer of peace throughout the world.
While this prayer meeting may not change the world, it may help soften the hearts of world leaders, and smooth the path toward a more peaceful Middle East.