This weekend marks the Feast of Pentecost, since 1970 designating the concluding day of the Easter Season. The formal end of Eastertide is Second Vespers, or Sunday evening prayer (June 9 this year). The dating of the Solemnity of Pentecost for most of the Church’s history—50 days after Easter—is determined in large part from the calendar of events laid out by St. Luke in his Acts of the Apostles, though not quite with the precision we learned as youths.
Many New Testament sources testify that Jesus spent time with the apostles before his ascent into glory. Luke specifies forty days between Easter and the Ascension, but an indeterminate time of prayer and waiting on the part of the apostles alone until the dramatic descent of the Spirit described in Acts 2. The numeral “forty” is a literary idiom for a generic period. Genesis describes the rains of the great flood as “forty days and forty nights;” the wandering of the Hebrews is described as “forty years,” and Jesus’ fast in the desert a similar forty days. And before we go too far into numerical significance, recall that in St. John’s Gospel Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit from the cross as he died, and again on Easter Sunday night over ten apostles—Judas having died and “doubting Thomas” being absent.
The observance of Pentecost today and for much of the Church’s history is determined by the date of Easter, which as we know is moveable year to year. Because of the importance of the Passover in the Passion narratives of the Gospels, Christians have generally—with some exceptions—dated Easter to coincide with Passover, which occurs on the first sabbath after the first full moon of spring, i.e., the Hebrew method of reckoning. For Roman Catholics the present liturgical discipline marks the possible dates of Easter from March 22 to April 25. Pentecost can thus be celebrated as late as June 13 in some years; this year’s date is considered a late Pentecost.
In the Liturgical reforms of Vatican II, the Church attempted to reinforce the unity of the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecostal feasts. If you read St. John’s Easter narrative carefully, he depicts the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost events as all occurring on Easter Sunday! Hence the strict formal ending of the Easter Season with Pentecostal Vespers. This was not always the case. In fact, until the new missal was released in 1970, the Easter Season extended till Trinity Sunday, a week later. The week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday was quite busy; the summer “Ember Days” or traditional days of prayer and fasting were observed in the week after Pentecost.
If you visit the USCCB Lectionary for the “Extended Vigil Mass of Pentecost” you will get some feeling for the older Saturday Pentecost Vigil from the Tridentine Rite Mass observed prior to 1970. In Philadelphia there is currently an effort to restore the Pentecost Vigil of older times, which does bear some resemblance to the Easter Vigil, but even its promoters admit that there is not much enthusiasm for restoration at the present time.
It is my subjective judgment that in the years since the Council there has been a dearth of discussion and healthy catechetics about the influence of the Holy Spirit upon our Church and our sacraments. At the Vigil Mass last night, my pastor observed that the dramatic appearances of the Spirit in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have tended toward a definition of Spirit experience today as only isolated and dramatic events in the life of the Church and its members. I was catechized in that fashion for my sixth grade Confirmation in 1960, and I remember feeling “let down” after the ceremony; I also had expected Jesus to talk to me after my First Communion, too. From what I see and hear today, the issue of “promise versus product” is just as real today.
When I was a pastor in the 1980’s there was a school of thought that later aged-Confirmation was a more effective way of connecting doctrine and experience. The idea went something like this: if your Confirmation candidates were 17 or 18 years old, they were more mature and better equipped to make a conscious choice to embrace their Baptismal experience and a life in the Spirit-filled Church. As the years went on and I immersed myself into psychology, I learned that developmental maturity is not achieved until around the age of 26. And as I am now in my 70’s I look at the world quite differently than I did even at age 50.
The fallacy of my thinking in my past is weighing all the eggs in the scale of subjective experience and determination. In 2013 the Seton Hill College theologian Timothy Gabrielli wrote Confirmation: How a Sacrament of God's Grace Became All about Us (2013) in which he addresses the overly subjective approach to sacramental experience at the cost of God’s initiative. Although I had criticized some points of his work, in fact he was kind enough to exchange several letters with me for this blog; this correspondence can be found at the end of my Amazon review (click “comments.”). I should add that I am currently reading Gabrielli’s One in Christ: Virgil Michel, Louis-Marie Chauvet, and Mystical Body Theology (2017), an advanced study of the title “Mystical Body of Christ” applied to the life of the Church and its sacramental life; I will be referring to this this work in future posts.
The Feast of Pentecost was called “The Birthday of the Church” in my youth, and no discussion of the Church (technically known as “ecclesiology”) can proceed without addressing the Spirit’s intercommunion with the Church. This past week was another difficult one for the Church in the United States, Poland, and elsewhere. At the very least, one can say that a Church born of the Spirit’s breath has not always impressed many people as a Spirit-filled community (though the sins of some do not negate the virtues of others.) In reflecting upon the Spirit this weekend, it occurred to me that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus, after his baptism, was engaged in intense prayer when the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. Similarly, the Pentecost event occurred after a similar period of intense prayer by the twelve in the upper room.
At the very least, there is a core connection between communion with the Spirit and intense prayer. My pastor was correct to speak of communion with the Spirit in the present and future tense, and not simply as a dramatic scenario. And perhaps the key to a true reform of the Church rests upon a spirit of prayer, an atmosphere where, biblically speaking, the Spirit is always to be found.