Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost

Reading 1: Acts 2:1-11

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.”

“Acts of the Holy Spirit”
If we re-title the Acts of the Apostles, easily we can choose the name, “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” In this second volume of Luke’s writing (first volume is the Gospel of Luke), the Holy Spirit is the one acting, inspiring, directing and moving to action the early Christians and their mission. In Paul’s second missionary journey, he and Silas wanted to bring the Gospel to the East by trying to go to Bithynia (Northwestern part of modern day Turkey), but “they have been prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the word in Asia” (16:6). “As Luke narrates, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them” (16:7). Only the Holy Spirit knows why the Gospel should not first be preached to the Far East; but it is clear that Paul and Silas must not pursue their own personal plans and projects nor depend on their ability and experience. They must go where the Spirit blows. So they went westward, to Troas, and from there brought the Gospel to Europe (16:11-12).
The Acts of the Apostles mention the word “spirit” (pneuma or pneo) 115 times; Gospel of Luke – 50 times; all in all 164 times. The Acts of the Apostles begins with a reminiscing off Jesus’ teachings “through the Holy Spirit” (1;2) and ends with a reminiscing of how the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophet Isaiah to the ancestors (28:25). Likewise the Gospel of Luke begins the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist who will be “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:15). With this literary style called inclusio (when a word is mentioned at the beginning and at the end of a writing), we can say that Acts of the Apostles, as well as the whole of Luke’s works, is embraced by the Holy Spirit. In the fact, even the whole Bible is embraced by the Spirit. Genesis begins with “spirit of God” hovering over the waters (1:2) and ends with the invitation of the “Spirit and the bride” in the last chapter of the very last writing of the Bible – the book of Revelation (22:17).

It is no surprise then that, in telling us the story of early Church, Luke begins with the story of the Coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples (2:1-13). This is a very important and a crucial section. From this time on, the disciples would no longer be afraid and timid to proclaim publicly the good news of Jesus. This is what we notice in Peter’s Pentecost speech (2:14-36). The same Holy Spirit would move the disciples to a koinonia, (“fellowship” or common life), listening to the teachings of the Apostles, breaking bread and praying together, selling their properties and possessions to help each other (see 2:42-47; also 4:32-35).

Hence, the Holy Spirit is prime mover in the Acts of the Apostles, like the “timonero”, the helmsman steering the boat to its destination.

The "Timon" (Rudder)

Pentecost and the Coming of the Spirit
To understand better this Sunday’s first reading (Acts 2:1-13), we need to ask why is the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of the Pentecost? Or what is the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Pentecost?

Pentecost is one of the more important feasts in the Old Testament. It is also called the “Feast of Weeks” (Shavuot in Hebrew). It is described as the “feast of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field” (Exodus 23:16); as “the first fruits of wheat harvest” (Exodus 34:22). This shows that Pentecost was originally a feast of farmers – an occasion on which they show gratitude to Yahweh for the first fruits, the early harvest.

In the ancient religion of Canaan, the one responsible for a good harvest is Baal. He is the storm-god, the god of rain, the rider of cloud, and other titles associated with rain and vegetation. More than half of the land of Israel is desert and rain is rare, anyone who can send rain and a good harvest must be a powerful god. So Israelites, at times, goes after Baal thinking that he is the one who gives “the grain, the wine, and the oil” (Hosea 2:10). The Feast of Weeks is not only an occasion to thank God for the early harvest; it is also to affirm that it is Yahweh, and not Baal, who gives rain and harvest (see Psalm 135:7).

By associating the Jewish Pentecost with the descent of the Holy Spirit, we can say that Yahweh who sent rain and provided good harvest in ancient time is the same God who provides “good harvest” of believers in the early Church through the Holy Spirit. The prayer taken from Psalm 104:30 is fitting here: “Lord, send forth your Spirit and they shall be created; and renew the face of the earth.”

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D., Pentecost ceased to be an agricultural feast. It became the feast of the Giving of the Torah (Law) on Mount Sinai. In Exod 19:1, the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Sinai “on the third new moon”. This was interpreted to mean that between the Passover meal in Egypt and arrival at Sinai was fifty days (hence, “Pentecost” from the Greek “fiftieth”). It was most probably this meaning that Luke is familiar with when narrating the Coming of the Holy Spirit on the feast of the Pentecost in Jerusalem.

Why does Luke then set the day of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah on Pentecost? We can suggest three points here:

(1) The Giving of the Torah in Sinai is fundamental to the life of Israel. With the Law, Israel would know how to “walk with the Lord” to the Land that the Lord had promised them to possess (Deuteronomy 30:16). Likewise, the Coming of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to the life of the early Christians. It will be the Holy Spirit who would direct their life and mission of preaching the Gospel “to the ends of the earth”.

(2) The Giving of the Torah signifies the birth of Israel in the wilderness as the people of God. The Coming of the Holy Spirit signifies the birth of the Church in Jerusalem.

(3) The Coming of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of the Giving of the Torah also signifies that the Church now under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is a continuity of God’s covenant with Israel.

This close relationship between Torah and the Holy Spirit in Luke will have to be born in mind when we read the next writing of the New Testament after the Acts of the Apostles – the Letter of Paul to Romans where Paul will make a sharp contrast between the Law and the Spirit (see Romans 7:6).

What is the critical point of my life? How did the Holy Spirit move me to make the right decision?

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992).

Joseph B. Tyson, "Pentecost" in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition, pp. 826-827.

1 comment:

Randolf C. Flores, SVD said...

One of my students in the CTS program sent me this question on my commentary on Acts on Pentecost also broadcast over Radio Veritas, Catholic Bible School on the Air (every Sunday 8:00 pm to 9:30pm). Mr. Zoilo Galang writes:

I have another query--in the Catholic Bible School on the Air (CBSA) the other week, you mentioned that in the Pentecost event in Acts Luke tried to associate the giving or descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles with the giving of the Torah to Moses. In the same way the prophets said it is Yahweh who brings rains and good harvest, Luke says it is Yahweh who brings a good harvest of believers in the early Christian church.

Bishop Ambo David in this Sunday's episode of the CBSA contrasted the Pentecost event with the Tower of Babel event in Genesis which led to failure of communication and disunity but which was undone by the Pentecost which gave birth to the church and a harvest of believers.

At any rate this would indicate that Luke was telling a story to prove a certain point, a form of rabbinic midrash, similar to what he did with the infancy narratives. Does this mean the Pentecost event is not a literal event, but more of a story to show a connection to a fulfillment of the Old Testament?
My reply: Indeed, already during the time of Augustine, the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit is antithetically paralleled with the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis. However, there is not enough evidence that Luke is using the story of the Tower of Babel as template for his Pentecost story. In fact, he does not cite from Genesis but from the prophet Joel (see Acts 2:16-22)