PENTECOST: THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH

Pentecost3
The Pentecost

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples and instructed them for 40 days, after which He ascended to heaven. While with them, He said: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift My Father promised, which you have heard Me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5). That first baptism of the Spirit marked the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ to all people (cf. Matthew 28:20) regardless of the language being spoken.

The Lord’s words were fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit that Christ had promised to His disciples came on this day (John 14:26, 15:26; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5). The apostles received “the power from on high,” and they began to preach and bear witness to Jesus as the risen Christ, the King and the Lord (Acts 2), and the Holy Father Peter preached his first sermon, urging the crowds to repent, to believe in Jesus Christ as their Messiah and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 38). That very day of Pentecost, some 3,000 people were baptized and became the people of God (verse 41). The Church was born.

The day called “Pentecost” is named after the Greek word “pentekostos”, which means 50th. It is the Mosaic festival observed by Jews, “Shavuoth”, sometimes called in the Old Testament the “Feast of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22; Leviticus 23:15; Numbers 28:26; Deuteronomy 16:9-12). Other names for the day are the Feast of the Harvest and Day of First Fruits (Exodus 23:16; Numbers 28:26). Pentecost was to be observed in ancient Israel on the 50th day after the priest waved a selected sheaf of the first grain that had been harvested in the spring (Leviticus 23:15-21). That meant that seven weeks elapsed between the day of the wave sheaf offering and the beginning of Pentecost, thus the name of the festival — the Feast of Weeks. This festival had come to signify for Jews the commemoration of the giving of the Law of Moses (the Torah) at Mount Sinai 50 days after the Exodus Passover (Exodus 20–24).

Moreover, in Christian sense, Pentecost is one of the most ancient feasts of the Church, celebrated early enough to be mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (20:16) and St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (16:8). It is the 50th day after Easter (if Easter and Pentecost are both counted), and it supplants the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which took place 50 days after the Passover and celebrated the sealing of the Old Covenant on Mount Sinai.

The first Christian Pentecost happened in the Upper Room or Cenacle on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 1:13).

But how old is the observance of Christian Pentecost?

The commemoration of the Holy Pentecost, the very day that the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and the Blessed Mother Mary, can be traced back to the early Christian era as evidenced in the following historical documents:

St. Paul (AD 5-67), Apostle to the Gentiles

“In the meantime, I will be staying here at Ephesus until the Festival of Pentecost” (First Letter to Corinthians 16:8)

St. Irenaeus (AD 130-202), bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul

“This [custom], of not bending the knee upon Sunday, is a symbol of the resurrection, through which we have been set free, by the grace of Christ, from sins, and from death, which has been put to death under Him. Now this custom took its rise from apostolic times, as the blessed Irenaeus, the martyr and bishop of Lyons, declares in his treatise On Easter, in which he makes mention of Pentecost also; upon which [feast] we do not bend the knee, because it is of equal significance with the Lord’s day, for the reason already alleged concerning it” (Fragments from the Lost Writings of Irenaeus vii).

Tertullian (AD 160-220), early Christian theologian

“Pentecost is a most joyous space for conferring baptisms; wherein, too, the resurrection of the Lord was repeatedly proved among the disciples, and the hope of the advent of the Lord indirectly pointed to, in that, at that time, when He had been received back into the heavens, the angels told the apostles that ‘He would so come, as He had withal ascended into the heavens;’ at Pentecost, of course. But, moreover, when Jeremiah says, ‘And I will gather them together from the extremities of the land in the feast-day,’ he signifies the day of the Passover and of Pentecost, which is properly a ‘feast-day'” (On Baptism, Chapter 19).

Origen (AD 184-254), early Christian theologian

“If it be objected to us on this subject that we ourselves are accustomed to observe certain days, as for example the Lord’s day, the Preparation, the Passover, or Pentecost . . . And, finally, he who can truly say, ‘We are
risen with Christ,’ and ‘He has exalted us, and made us to sit with Him in heavenly places in Christ,’ is always living in the season of Pentecost” (Contra Celsus, Book VIII, Chapter XXII).

Eusebius (AD 263-339), bishop of Caesarea

“All these events occurred during a most important festival, I mean the august and holy solemnity of Pentecost, which is distinguished by a period of seven weeks, and crowned with that one day on which the holy Scriptures attest the reception of our common Saviour into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit among men. In the course of this feast the emperor received the privileges I have described; and on the last day of all, which one might justly call the feast of feasts.” [The life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine (with the oration of Constantine to the assembly of saints and the oration of Eusebius in praise of Constantine), Chapter LXIV].

Egeria, Gallic pilgrim to the Holy Land (AD 381-384)

“But on the fiftieth day (Pentecost), that is, the Lord’s Day, when the people have a very great deal to go through, everything that is customary is done from the first cockcrow onwards; vigil is kept in the Anastasis, and the bishop reads the passage from the Gospel that is always read on the Lord’s Day, namely, the account of the Lord’s resurrection, and afterwards everything customary is done in the Anastasis, just as throughout the whole year” (Peregrinatio Aetheriae).

St. John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), bishop of Constantinople

“When, it says, the day of Pentecost was fully come: that is, when at the Pentecost, while about it, in short. For it was essential that the present events likewise should take place during the feast, that those who had witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, might also behold these […] And, it says, there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men. The fact of their dwelling there was a sign of piety: that being of so many nations they should have left country, and home, and relations, and be abiding there […] for it was Pentecost.” (The Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, Volume 1, Homily IV)

The Apostolic Constitutions (AD 375-380)

“But after ten days from the ascension, which from the first Lord’s day is the fiftieth day, keep a great festival: for on that day, at the third hour, the Lord Jesus sent on us the gift of the Holy Ghost, and we were filled with His energy, and we spoke with new tongues, as that Spirit did suggest to us (Acts 2:4); and we preached both to Jews and Gentiles, that He is the Christ of God, who is determined by Him to be the Judge of quick and dead (Acts 10:42)” [Book 5, xx].

WELL, if the early Christians observed this great feast of Pentecost, why not the Christians of this generation? St. Paul is very clear on this matter: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

On the other hand, the celebration of the Pentecost has undergone various transitions during the centuries by the large Universal church. Writing as a Catholic, Francis Weiser, in his book, has this to say:

“During the early centuries, just the day itself was celebrated in the Western church. After the seventh century; however, the whole week came to be considered a time of festive observance. Law courts did not sit and servile work was forbidden during the entire octave. The Council of Constance (AD 1094) limited this prohibition to three days. The late Pope Clement XIV, in AD 1771, abolished Tuesday as a prescribed holyday. Finally, in AD 1911, the late Pope Saint Pius X abolished Monday as a holyday of obligation; but most European countries, both Catholic and Protestant, still observe it as a legal holiday” (Christian Feasts and Customs, pages 248-49).

Thus, it is plain to see, as history shows, that the feast of Pentecost has always been observed — always been regarded as an important Christian Holy day. From the time of the apostles and the early Church to the present generation and the large Christian world, the feast of weeks or first fruits, the Pentecost, has been, and still is proclaimed as a feast of the Lord.

Remember, the Jewish Feast celebrates the beginning of the wheat harvest by offering the first of the harvested wheat to the Lord. On the other hand, the Christian Feast celebrates the beginning of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, when Jesus harvested 3000 souls who were cut to the heart by Peter’s teaching and were baptized. Jesus Christ Himself is the first fruit (“of those who have fallen asleep,” cf. 1 Cor 15:20), and His followers too are a kind of first fruits by the grace He has given them (cf. Jas 1:18).

VENI SANCTE SPIRITVS!

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