PENTECOST SUNDAY [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
[Note: there are three different sets of readings for Pentecost: the Vigil, the extended Vigil, and the Sunday Mass. I am using the Sunday readings, as many parishes in my experience use the Sunday readings across the board.]
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
"Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God."
The New Testament authors Matthew, Luke, and John describe the outpouring of God’s Spirit in several settings after the Resurrection. Luke’s account in Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles is clearly the most dramatic, capturing the imagination of catechists and artists alike. It is not surprising, then, that this account enjoys a place of honor on the feast which concludes the Easter celebration of our redemption. Luke sets this drama on the existing Jewish feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, originally a harvest thanksgiving but later an observance of God’s gift of the Law. Shavuot/Pentecost was one of three “pilgrim feasts” in the Jewish calendar which explains why so many people from distant lands and languages were present when the Apostles began to preach.
Sunday’s text is the introduction to Chapter 2, a chapter which includes Peter’s remarkable sermon and the baptism of the 3000. It is worth reading Acts 2 in its entirety to understand Sunday’s text in its context. The heart of the chapter is Peter’s summary of God’s plan with its fruition in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of God’s saving Spirit upon the face of the earth. If the feast of Shavuot honors the written revelation of God, Peter’s sermon serves up the new revelation embodied in Christ and enfolds Jewish notions of history into the wisdom of the new Kingdom of God.
Our text above begins with the dramatic transformation of the Apostles. It is not clear from the text if anyone except the Apostles visually witnessed anything; the fire appeared “to them” and the wind “filled the entire house where they were.” The odds are that only the Apostles experienced this manifestation and the crowds in the Jerusalem streets were oblivious to it. It was not until the Apostles went into the streets preaching that confusion and amazement moved the crowds; the initial shock was the realization that a polyglot assembly could understand the single language of Galileans.
Luke goes on to elaborate the diversity of this crowd. Over the years I have tended to glaze over this lengthy catalogue of nations and regions as it is read in church each year, but as I examine it now I have much greater respect for Luke’s genius. For one thing, this collage of nations is enormous, from at least three continents. Africa is represented by listeners from Egypt and Libya. Arabia is situated in southwest Asia, and the central power of imperial Rome sat as the crossroads of nearly all civilized lands in what we refer to as Europe. There is mention of Jews and converts to Judaism. In Acts 2:14 Peter will widen the reference beyond Judaism: ““You who are Jews, indeed all of you staying in Jerusalem. Let this be known to you and listen to my words.” The invitation to grace has gone far beyond residents of Jerusalem and Judaea, and even more remarkably, past the established boundaries of Jewish faith.
Acts 2 has raised questions for scholars about its historicity. In my seminary days my professors shared the [not-unanimous] conclusion that while the Book of Acts was written after the Gospel in Luke, putting its composition in the mid-80’s A.D., it utilized earlier material, particularly the earliest evangelizing sermons of the Apostles and very early Church leaders. However, there were also those who believed that Luke was crafting a faith history driven by the needs of the Church of his time, a Church agonizing over its split from Judaism. Was Luke attempting to explain that Christianity’s mission was somehow destined toward a universal mission? If the projected date of composition is correct, the Church had already established itself in Rome for nearly 25 years when Luke penned the Acts.
There is another Biblical point to make regarding Sunday’s reading. In the pre-history narrative of Genesis 11, the world is reported to have spoken the same language, and one group of nomads decided to build a city with a tower to reach the heavens. God thwarted their impudence by casting multiple languages upon them, and the Tower of Babel narrative came to be seen as God’s wrath for the world’s hubris. It is interesting, then, that when the Holy Spirit is poured out upon the world at Pentecost, the citizenry of the entire known world can understand Peter’s preaching in a single language. The scattering of the peoples at Babel is reconciled by the unifying impact of preaching in the Holy Spirit.
The Easter Season of fifty days ends on Pentecost with Vespers or Evening Prayer on Sunday. The following Monday, May 21, marks our return to the green of Ordinary Time, the seventh week, though the new feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, will be observed on Monday next week. The Sundays of May 27 is the observance of the Feast of the Trinity, and Sunday, June 3, is the Feast of Corpus Christi.