The word “Pentecost” derives from the Greek word for “fifty.” It marks 50 days after Passover on the Jewish calendar and 50 days after Easter on the Christian calendar. Among Jews it is known as Shebuot or “Weeks” and celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. For Christians it commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples (including the mother of Jesus) gathered in Jerusalem after his ascension.
In John 20, however, the gift of the Holy Spirit takes place earlier, on the evening of Easter Sunday. The risen Jesus invites his disciples to carry on the mission given him by his heavenly Father and empowers them to do so by breathing upon them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 reminds us that every day is Pentecost in the sense that “to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” All baptized Christians are privileged and empowered to be members of the body of Christ, and so they can and should use their spiritual gifts to build up the body of Christ.
Luke’s version of the first Pentecost is the biblical account that has most captured the Christian imagination. Fifty days after Easter, the disciples of Jesus gather for prayer in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit comes upon them in dramatic fashion, with a strong wind and “tongues of fire.” They begin to speak in different languages, and miraculously their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is heard and understood by Jewish pilgrims from different countries with different native languages.
Pentecost is often called the birthday of the church. In Luke’s narrative in Acts, the good news of Jesus moves from Jerusalem through Samaria, Syria, Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and Greece to Rome. The first phase in this amazing story takes place on the first Pentecost, when the Gospel is preached at Jerusalem to Jews and converts to Judaism from various places outside the land of Israel. The miracle of the first Pentecost is that Diaspora Jews from Parthia, Media, Elam and all those other exotic places hear and understand the preaching of the apostles in their own languages.
There is some tension in the text as to whether the apostles spoke Aramaic (or Hebrew) and were understood by the foreigners, or whether they spoke in all those different languages. In either case, the point is that the miracle of the first Pentecost reverses the episode of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. In that story, in response to human arrogance, God “confused” the languages of humankind and scattered them over the face of the earth. Now the good news of Jesus Christ is the language that unites all these different peoples.
The rest of Acts traces the spread of the Gospel all over the Mediterranean world. It moves first among Jews and then fans out to non-Jews. Paul appears as the great missionary to the Gentiles. By the narrow standards of Mediterranean society in the first century, the Gospel reached the ends of the earth with Paul’s arrival in Rome.
The miracle of the first Pentecost, according to Luke, was that “each one heard them [the apostles] speaking in his own language.” Now, almost 2,000 years later, the church’s missionary activity continues, and the Gospel has been proclaimed far beyond the Mediterranean world. The memory of Jesus has been kept alive, and the movement he began has been carried on. Nevertheless, Luke’s Pentecost narrative challenges the church today to find even more effective ways of communicating the Gospel to peoples in every land on earth. Karl Rahner, S.J., thought that the greatest challenge facing our church today is to become a truly catholic, or world church. Just as the early Christians moved beyond the land of Israel and the Jewish people, so we must help all the peoples in our world hear and express the Gospel in their own languages and according to their own cultural patterns.
The miracle of the “tongues” at the first Pentecost was the initial step in the process that is sometimes called the inculturation of the Gospel. The challenge that faced the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem at the birth of the church still faces the church today. That challenge involves remaining faithful to the substance of the Gospel, while translating and applying it in all the languages and cultures of the world. For that we too need the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And so on this Pentecost we must say, “Come, Holy Spirit, come!”