Despite its prominent place in redemptive history, Pentecost receives little attention in many Christian communities, for whom celebrating a feast involves primarily commemoration or recognition. But Christian liturgy for any particular day must not only to look backward at history, but to look at the present and the future. In our celebration of Pentecost, then, we come to understand our place in God’s kingdom and its history, but we also experience a new and fuller kingdom reality.
Thus Pentecost, regardless of the differing explanations for Pentecost among communities of Christians, must never be a mere commemoration of this powerful and important historical event. Instead, we can respond to the invitation that Pentecost represents, an invitation to know God here and now, to receive God’s peace, and to experience and testify to God’s power. Those first witnesses, who saw the disciples emerge transformed from the upper room and personal experience of Pentecost, experienced the new missional strength of the disciples.
I. History and Celebration of the Feast
The first Christian Pentecost occurred during a major Jewish festival, the Feast of Weeks. The name itself simply means “fiftieth,” as it occurs fifty days after Easter.
The Jewish celebration of Pentecost dates from the time of the Exodus. It is called the “Feast of Harvest” in Exodus 23, and later the “day of firstfruits” (Numbers 28:26). It is important to note that Israel has multiple grain harvests (barley and wheat), so the ritual calendar spaces out celebrations. Firstfruits offers the agricultural community the opportunity to give thanks for God’s faithfulness in the harvest. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., the collapse of the sacrificial system led to shift in emphasis. Because harvest offerings could no longer be presented, faithful Jews focused their thanksgiving on the gift of Torah, the Law, the first five books of the Bible.
In the book of Acts, Pentecost joins the Jewish festivals that find their ultimate fulfillment in the life and ministry of Jesus. The day of Pentecost arrives, and just as Jesus promised in Acts 1, that day brings the Holy Spirit. Waiting together, a group of Jesus’ followers sees the arrival of God’s promised Spirit at about “the third hour,” or 9 a.m. The Spirit arrives, accompanied by the sound of wind, and then “tongues of fire…separated and came to rest on each of them.” These symbols give way to two clear and powerful statements: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”
The blessing of the Holy Spirit was not restricted to the 120 or so gathered disciples. Thousands of Jews had come from around the world to Jerusalem for the festival, bringing their offerings to the Temple. Some of these pilgrims observe Peter and the others spill out of their hiding place, and the experience of this remnant becomes public knowledge. Their experience was apparently ecstatic, as some in the crowd assume they have been drinking. Peter, however, takes the opportunity to bear witness to Jesus, and a massive response to the gospel occurs: three thousand people obey his call to “repent and be baptized, every one of you.” These converts join “the number” of the disciples, swelling the congregation thirtyfold. Not surprisingly, the day is traditionally considered the “birthday” of the church.
The subsequent celebration of Pentecost, as with the other feasts we have explored, only took shape over the next few centuries. The earliest account of the feast again comes from Egeria, whose 4th-century pilgrim’s journal provides so much eyewitness testimony to the development of Christian worship. She writes that the day was filled with activity—so much activity, in fact, that
“very great fatigue is endured on that day, for vigil is kept at the Anastasis from the first cockcrow, and there is no pause from that time onward throughout the whole day, but the whole celebration (of the Feast) lasts so long that it is midnight when every one returns home.”1
Egeria describes a series of services involving three churches. The first service was before daybreak (at “cockcrow”) in the Anastasis, an interior chapel built over the reputed site of Jesus’ empty tomb. (Anastasis means “resurrection.”) After the vigil, at daybreak, the group processed to the “martyrium,” the large basilica that lay across a courtyard from the Anastasis. The service proceeded here as usual for Sundays, except the dismissal came before the “third hour,” to allow for the procession to Sion. This is Mount Zion, the highest point in Jerusalem, and the traditional site of the Upper Room. A church was built there in the 4th century, called Hagia Sion, or Holy Zion. It is sometimes called “the Mother of All Churches.” 2
After readings there, the faithful assembled again at another church, Eleona, or the Church of the Disciples. 3 Much of the procession is repeated in the evening, finishing at Sion and returning home “about midnight.”
Baptisms were common at the Vigil. In fact, Pentecost came to be called Whitsunday, “White Sunday,” because catechumens not baptized at Easter were often baptized (and dressed in white robes) at the Vigil. Tertullian, in his treatise On Baptism, called Pentecost “a most joyous space for conferring baptisms” because of its connection not only with the Resurrection and Ascension, but the future return of Jesus.
In addition to baptisms at Pentecost, churches have often incorporated other traditions. For instance, many churches make color a performative element. Most Western churches use red on Pentecost Sunday for decoration and vestments, symbolizing the tongues of fire, or the baptism of fire that comes from the Holy Spirit. They transition to green for the “ordinary time” that follows. Some Italian churches scattered rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues. In Sicily and elsewhere in Italy Whitsunday is called Pascha rosatum.
The Eastern churches, however, use green for Pentecost, representing the new life given by the breath of God’s Spirit. They decorate the church with flowers and green leaves, and the emphasis on new creation is highlighted. Orthodox also refer to Pentecost as Trinity Day, because it represents the final act of God’s self-revelation to the world. For this reason, in addition to the traditional icon for Pentecost, churches display the icon of the Holy Trinity (the most famous of which was written by Andrei Rublev.
II. The Meaning of Pentecost
Dallas Willard saw a shift in the book of Acts from an assembly of the faithful bounded in the Jewish nation to a redemptive community for the entire Greco-Roman world. The divine community would spread from Jerusalem to a new base in Syrian Antioch, which commissioned and sent the first missionaries throughout the known world. In the outpouring of the Spirit, Willard sees the “greater works” of John 14:12 made more than possible. (From “The Meaning of Pentecost,” part 2 of Willard’s 5-part series about Acts.)
For Christians, then, Pentecost has to do with promise: the promise of real peace, presence, and power. And all these promises are to be fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was departing, he told his disciples in John 14, and we can understand their distress. They had spent several years with him, and surely it did not seem like enough. But he will send a parakletos, sometimes translated “Comforter,” or “Counselor,” or “Advocate.” None of these English words is quite adequate, and I cannot offer a better one. But the overarching truth is that the Holy Spirit would be exactly the Friend the disciples needed not only to endure grief and suffering but to see them transformed into joy (John 16:20-23).
As a result, the Holy Spirit would bring abiding peace. Jesus anticipates the darkness and persecution they will endure in the coming days. And in answer, he offers the disciples peace. Again, “peace” isn’t quite adequate for the all-encompassing shalom that Jesus promises here. God’s peace means not merely the absence of conflict but what one knows when victory is assured and everything is made right. Shalom is what one knows when they are assured that the kingdom of God is not just some future possibility but a present reality, available to anyone who has put their trust in the risen and ascended and reigning Jesus.
The Holy Spirit also represents (or “re-presents”) Jesus the King. Although Jesus was “going to the Father,” he would not “abandon [them] as orphans.” The disciples were understandably confused by this impossibility. And it is confusing to us, who are bound in time and place. But the Holy Spirit does not just assure us of Jesus’ presence, allowing us to remind ourselves that things are better than they seem because Jesus is King somewhere above or will be King somewhere off in the future. Instead, the the Triune God is actually present in the Holy Spirit, providing us with all the resources of a present King and kingdom.
Those resources make the “greater works” possible, in part because God’s power makes our transformation possible. Peter and the other disciples, hidden away in fear after the death of Jesus, emerge from the upper room transformed. Their tongues, acknowledged by James to be “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “set on fire by hell,” had been consumed by holy fire.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote that the Holy Spirit “sat upon them in the form of fiery tongues, that they might crown themselves with new and spiritual diadems by fiery tongues upon their heads. A fiery sword barred of old the gates of Paradise; a fiery tongue which brought salvation restored the gift.” For Cyril, the Spirit given to the believer is a sign of salvation, that the whole person, body and soul, belongs to him.
These three gifts—peace, presence, and power—ensure that Jesus’ work continues and expands in the disciples’ work. Pentecost offers the firstfruits of this work, too, as the message of God’s kingdom comes to people from all over the world. This is the “already,” the “at-hand,” reality of the kingdom. But as the apostle Paul makes clear, God also promises an ultimate inheritance. Though we have, he writes in Romans, “the firstfruits of the Spirit,” we “groan inwardly” along with the whole created order, as we “wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). That future redemption belongs to the “not yet” of the kingdom.
The Cappadocian Father St Basil the Great, writing in the 4th century, puts it this way:
“Through the Holy Spirit comes our restoration to paradise, our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our liberty to call God our Father, our being made partakers of the grace of Christ, our being called children of light, our sharing in eternal glory, and, in a word, our being brought into a state of all ‘fulness of blessing,’ both in this world and in the world to come, of all the good gifts that are in store for us, by promise hereof, through faith, beholding the reflection of their grace as though they were already present, we await the full enjoyment.” (On the Holy Spirit)
Peter presents both of these realities in his Pentecost sermon. Though they had been emissaries of the kingdom before (Matthew 10, Mark 6, Luke 10), Peter now has the understanding and wisdom to properly situate Jesus’ mission as the culmination of God’s work in Israel for the whole world. He also demonstrates incredible boldness and rhetorical skill, preaching fruitfully three times in as many chapters. The Holy Spirit’s power has radically transformed him, so completely that Jerusalem’s ruling council is “astonished” that “unschooled, ordinary men” could demonstrate such courage and conviction (Acts 4:13). Just as Jesus had promised, their encounter led to new courage for mission and witness.
That missional strength represents yet another way that Pentecost reframes history, and it is a reframing that can inform our practice of the Way of Jesus. Many theologians, including the early fathers, saw in Pentecost a reversal of Babel’s cursed language (Genesis 11). At the Tower of Babel, God descended, confused languages, and scattered the people to avoid a godless unity. At Pentecost, though, God descended and made the kingdom intelligible to every language, and then he scattered the people as part of a new and unified kingdom that transcended culture. 4
In this sense, every worship gathering must be “Pentecostal.” It must send Christians out with the words of the Book of Common Prayer:
“Go forth into the world in peace.
Be of good courage.
Hold fast that which is good.
Render to no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the fainthearted.
Support the weak.
Help the afflicted.
Show love to everyone.
Love and serve the Lord,
rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit;
and the blessing of almighty God,
the Father, the + Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.”
III. Suggestions for Practice
- Eastern churches make the Icon of the Holy Trinity central to their celebration of Pentecost. Read Juliet Benner’s “O Taste and See” and meditate on the divine community that the icon faithfully pictures.
- Sing the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus as part of your personal or corporate worship during Pentecost.
- Read the poet John Dryden’s paraphrase here.
- Hear a choral version, sung to the tune of “All Creatures of Our God and King.”
- Arvo Pärt’s “Veni Creator” or “Veni Sancte Spiritus” might also provide a worshipful background for contemplation and prayer in the Holy Spirit.
- Reflect on this question: How has your encounter with the Holy Spirit transformed your life, empowering you for witness?