Every year, we celebrate the birthday of the Church on Pentecost. It was on that day, almost two thousand years ago, when the Holy Spirit anointed the Apostles and the Church was transformed from a less than two dozen frightened disciples holed-up in someone’s attic into a divinely inspired movement of over three thousand believers. But why did such a momentous event happen on that day? Why did God choose that day to reveal His glory in such a way? Why Pentecost?
The answer lies in the Jewish roots of the festival. Those roots are a little hard to trace since the Jews never called the event Pentecost themselves. That was what the Greeks named the event later. The Jews call the feast Shavuot, of the Festival of Weeks. Those “weeks” refer to the seven weeks proscribed by Moses in Deuteronomy 16 and begin the day after the Passover. As such, Shavuot is fifty days after the Passover and the Greek phrase for “fifty days” comes to us as Pentecost (think of pente and in the Pentagon). The festival had a double focus and really celebrated two different occasions.
First, Pentecost was a celebration of the end of the grain harvest is Israel. As such, one of the many names of the festival is the Festival of First-Fruits. In the Book of Numbers, the children of Israel are instructed to bring their “first-fruits” to Jerusalem on the Festival of Weeks. (28:26) Farmers in Israel would regularly survey their fields and, as soon as they saw fruit beginning to ripen, they would fasten a reed to the fruit. When the Pentecost came around, they would gather those first-fruits and present them to the Lord in the Temple.
In the twelfth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, some Greeks wanted to see Jesus. Our Lord answered them by saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” (vv. 23-24) A few days later, Our Lord would be crucified and die on the Cross. Fifty days later, the birth of the Church would be the first fruits of Jesus’ ministry! Jesus was the grain that “falls to the ground and dies” and in doing so, seven weeks later, He did produce much grain. In Jerusalem, the priests and rabbis and all Jerusalem saw the first fruit offering which Our Lord presented in the Temple. That offering was Church empowered by the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, healing the sick, and casting out demons. That first fruit offering was over three thousand men!
A second aspect of Pentecost was a celebration of the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. According to Jewish Biblical scholars, Exodus 19 takes place fifty days after the Exodus and, thus, fifty days after the first Passover. In many Jewish communities, Pentecost is observed by studying the Torah, five Books of Moses, throughout the night.
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah—not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (31:31-33)
As of the first Christian festival of Pentecost, the Law was no longer written on tablets of stone; it was written on the hearts of believers throughout Jerusalem. No long was the covenant exclusively for the faithful Apostles and mere handful of disciples who had not fled after the crucifixion; the New Covenant was open to all who would receive it.
Finally, the Festival of Weeks was one of the three Pilgrim Festivals in Israel. According to Exodus 34:18-23 as well as Deuteronomy 16, faithful Jews needed to travel to Jerusalem three times each year: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkoth, or, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Thus, when St. Peter and the Apostles burst forth from the Upper Room, they found the streets of Jerusalem flooded with devout Jews from throughout the Ancient Near East who had come to honor the Lord according to the traditions laid down in the Law of Moses. In short, they found an enormous audience that was eager to hear what God was doing!
So, why Pentecost? The festival of Pentecost was a harvest festival where the faithful brought their first-fruits into the Temple to offer them to the Lord and the Church was the first fruit of the seed which Our Lord planted when He died on Calvary’s Cross. The festival of Pentecost was a festival commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost fulfilled the prophesy which foretold that the Law of the New Covenant would be written on the hearts of believers in stead of on tablets of stone. Finally, Pentecost was a Pilgrim Feast and Jerusalem was filled with devout believers who were ready to hearken unto the word of the Lord. May we continue to see ourselves as the Lord’s offering, recall His Law written on our hearts, and be always ready to hear the Word of the Lord when it is presented to us.
O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.