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Pentecost Sunday: Burning from Him and speaking about Him

Our task this year is to look into the first reading for Holy Mass on Sunday celebrated with the Roman Catholic Church’s venerable and always legitimate and appropriate and contemporary and fruitful and ever alluring and awesome Vetus Ordo. We come to Pentecost at last, that major bookend, with its Octave, to the Pre-Lenten Sundays so many weeks ago.

Pentecost remains one of the most important moments of the liturgical year, though it suffered some pruning over the centuries. Not pruning like the savage hacking of Vatican II experts. In the ancient Roman Church there was held a vigil at St. John Lateran, the Cathedral. The sacrament of Confirmation was to be given. While Baptism and Confirmation were originally continuous, they were later separate. In the prayers of the Mass for the Vigil we already in the Vetus Ordo add the special Communicantes and the Hanc igitur used all through the Octave which speaks of, as it does at Easter, the “regeneration from water and the Holy Spirit.” This is one of the few days of the year when we sing a Sequence before the Gospel.

Let’s have the reading.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par′thians and Medes and E′lamites and residents of Mesopota′mia, Judea and Cappado′cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg′ia and Pamphyl′ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre′ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

A dense reading on a major mystery feast can be daunting. In these cases one might begin with the classic “key questions” in the Latin hexameter from Cicero in Rhetoricorum, seu De inventione rhetorica and taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas in STh IaIIae, q.7 a.3, namely: Quis, quid, ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando? In English we might ask: who?, what?, where?, when?, why? how?

Space doesn’t allow all of these keys, but we can use some. Firstly, we can consider the “why” of the Descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. Clearly it was to impart grace to the receivers as well as to inform the Church. St. Luke says that when the rushing wind and fire came “they were all filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:4). “Filled” implies plenitude. Surely the Apostles had received the Holy Spirit at their Baptism, as well as when the Lord ordained them at the Last Supper. Now they would have these graces in a superabundant measure.

Before, the Apostles frequently could not understand what Christ taught. After, they were able to confound the learned who opposed them. Before, they manifested many faults.  After, they were models of sanctity. Before, they were timid and didn’t even dare to go outside. After, they were courageous to the point of risking persecution and death. In fact, through the inrushing of the Holy Ghost they were “on fire” to spread the word of the Word. This is underscored in a Commentary by Ven. Bede (+737), upon whose traditional feast day I write.  Bede wrote about the “how” and “why”:

Spiritus enim sanctus in igne et linguis apparuit, quia omnes quos impleverit ardentes pariter et loquentes facit. Ardentes utique ex se, et loquentes de se. …  The Holy Spirit appeared as fire and tongues so that all whom He would fill He makes on fire and speaking in like manner.  Burning from Him and speaking about Him (Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio 2, PL 92.946).

Context brings the Feast and the reading into focus. These are when and where points. Pentecost is from the Greek for “fiftieth.” We are fifty days out from Easter. The ancient Jews celebrated an important feast seven weeks out from Passover, in Hebrew Shevuoth, “weeks.” Shevuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals for the Jews when adult males were to go up to Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices. Pentecost/Shevuot was the spring harvest festival involving the “first fruits,” the first sheaves of grain. There would later be an autumn harvest festival, which also required pilgrimage.

Jewish festivals looked in two directions, backward and forward. Shevuot looked back to the pivotal moment in salvation history when the people came to Mount Sinai and received the Law, the 10 Commandments, from God. You remember the scene in Exodus 19 and 20. Moses went up the mountain which was wreathed in storm and fire. He came down with the Law inscribed on stone.  Rushing forward to the fulfilment of the foreshadowing Passover, that first Easter of the Resurrection and, seven weeks later, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, filling the Church with new life, we find again the role of fire, a sound like thunder, the breath or ruach of the rushing Spirit, inscribing the new Law not on stone but on hearts. From the foreshadowing to the reality foreshadowed. From the exterior to the interior. At Mt. Sinai, twelve tribes. In Jerusalem the Twelve Apostles. Jewish Pentecost, the spring harvest festival, was about the first fruits that would be harvested in the year. Special loaves of bread were baked from the first sheaves of grain that were harvested. These loaves would then be waved in the Temple on Pentecost, the “wave offerings,” the first fruits of the harvest. When the Holy Spirit descended, some 3000 men were added to the incipient Church on its birthday, also “wave offerings” to the Lord.

In John 20:19-23 when the Risen Christ appeared in the locked room to the Apostles, He breathed on them – in Hebrew both “spirit” and “breath” are ruach – and said, “Receive the calling forth from the community.” No. Wait. “Receive the spirit of synodality.” Hmmm… again. “Receive the HOLY Spirit!” That’s it. The Spirit is Holy. The Spirit is also God. God the Father descended on Mt. Sinai. The Spirit descended on the new Church. Hence, the Spirit is as divine as the Father and the Son. The divine Spirit is given to the Apostles in and for the whole Church for their mission to the world which critically involves also the forgiveness of sins and… not to be overlooked… the retention of sins. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (730):

At last Jesus’ hour arrives: [Cf. Jn 13:1; 17:1] he commends his spirit into the Father’s hands [Cf. Lk 23:46; Jn 19:30] at the very moment when by his death he conquers death, so that, “raised from the dead by the glory of the Father,” [Rom 6:4] he might immediately give the Holy Spirit by “breathing” on his disciples. [Cf. Jn 20:22] From this hour onward, the mission of Christ and the Spirit becomes the mission of the Church: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” [Jn 20:21; cf. Mt 28:19; Lk 24:47-48; Acts 1:8]

When Christ sent forth the Apostles, He instructed them to do whatever they wanted and just make things up as they went. No. Wait.  Instead, there was to be unity in their mission to the world, scattered though they might be. They were not supposed to create a new Babel experience, wherein unity between peoples was lost and their languages were henceforth divided. At Pentecost with the in-breathing of the Holy Spirit, there is an anti-Babel, there is unity. All these people from different places could understand the language being used.

Golly, if only there were a language available to the Roman Catholic Church that could bring together all her children in common worship no matter what their mother tongue might me. I wonder if that’s what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council meant when they mandated: “Pastors of souls should make sure that people never ever hear another word of Latin and force them into ever smaller groups by constraining them to hear languages they don’t know.” No. Wait. Rather, doesn’t Sacrosanctum Concilium 54 say that pastors of souls are to make sure that their flocks can both sing and speak in Latin in their liturgical worship?

Mind you, I am writing here about the sacred liturgical worship of the Roman Catholic Church, the Latin Church of West. There are profound liturgical traditions of other legitimate and ancient Churches in union with Rome with their own languages, languages of the tongue and of gesture. Nevertheless, there is unity between all of them, though they are diverse. They are diverse, not divided. The Apostle to the Gentiles stresses the differences of origin and practices of members of the Church while underscoring their unity with one another in one Christ.

In any event, on the first Pentecost, the fulfillment of the Paschal, Passover event, the summation and goal of the ancient Shevuot festival which recalled the descent of God upon the twelve tribes and the inscribing of the Latin, there is manifest unity of mind and “spirit.”  As mentioned before, if Shevuot looked back to the fiery descent of God on Mt. Sinai, it looked forward to the return of God’s fiery presence in the Temple which had been lost.  The cloud of God’s glory, His presence, the shekinah had departed the Temple long ago (cf. Ezekiel 9-11).  The presence of God would return to the Temple in the Person of Jesus and in the fiery descent of the Spirit.

I am mindful of my prediction that, when the destroying and tearing down is done, when the demographic sinkhole has finally swallowed enough of the lukewarm or never-warmed at all while our senior brothers and sisters go to their graves, three groups will remain: charismatics (with their emphasis on gifts of the Spirit) converts from, say, evangelicalism (with their focus on the Word and works of mercy) and traditional Catholics who will bring to this initially tense union the gift of solidity in Tradition and unifying, transcendent sacred liturgical worship.

A word about the “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” issue. Which is it?

It is hardly to be doubted that we English speakers have traditionally used Holy Ghost because of early English translations of Holy Writ, namely the King James and the Douay Rheims versions even though both those Bibles use both Ghost and Spirit. The supremely influential KJV capitalized “Ghost” when it was certain that it referred to the Third Person of the Trinity. Our English “ghost,” related to German Geist (which is used in German for the Holy Spirit), in its roots is any sort of spirit. “Ghost” is used often to translate Biblical Greek pneuma and Latin spiritus. It became a matter of common parlance and traditional prayers, which people memorized and handed down. We sang hymns – mighty memory markers – with Ghost. I think we should feel free to use archaic words in our prayers, private and congregational. Prayer should be from and of the heart, but we can use the richness of our language to express ourselves also in solidarity with our forebears.



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