The Greek word for Pentecost literally means “fifty.” In the Jewish calendar Pentecost (or Weeks) takes place 50 days after Passover. In the Christian calendar it occurs 50 days after Easter. Pentecost marks the end and the goal of the Easter season. It celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciples of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem and is sometimes described as the birthday of the church. The Scripture readings for the day are rich in imagery and theology. But one theme that runs through them all may be missed. It is the insistence that the gift of the Holy Spirit is something to be shared with others.
Luke’s account of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ apostles and other disciples (including Mary) in Acts 2 has shaped the imagination of Christians about Pentecost for many centuries. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for “wind” (ruach and pneuma) is the same as the word for “spirit.” The references to wind and fire in the narrative echo John the Baptist’s prophecy about the “mightier one” coming with a baptism of the “Holy Spirit” and fire (Luke 3:16). Moreover, the miracle by which people of different languages could understand the apostolic preaching reverses the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
What may be overlooked among all these striking images is that the disciples who are filled with the Holy Spirit immediately devote themselves to sharing the good news about Jesus with pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. The first disciples recognized that the gift of the Holy Spirit was not something to be hidden away and enjoyed privately. Rather, the gift moves its recipients into action and inspires them to share it with others.
The reading from 1 Corinthians 12 develops this theme with respect to the gifts of the Holy Spirit (pneumatika). The key sentence is, “To each individual the manifestation of the spirit is given for some benefit.” Paul affirms that every Christian is a recipient and an agent of the Spirit. We receive the Spirit at baptism and live our Christian lives out of the Spirit’s power. The “manifestation” of the Spirit alludes to the varieties of charisms or gifts that the Spirit actualizes within the Christian community. They may take different forms: prophecy, teaching, administration, acts of charity, healing, speaking in tongues and so on. They may reside in different persons: apostles, prophets, teachers, healers and so on.
Paul’s insistence that the pneumatika are gifts is a reminder of their origin with the Holy Spirit, who prevents recipients from indulging in self-satisfaction, boasting or self-aggrandizement. These spiritual gifts are to be used for the benefit of others, for the common good and in building up the body of Christ. Paul’s insights remind us that Pentecost is not simply an event of the past, confined to the first followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago. Rather, the gifts of the Spirit are for each Christian and are meant to be shared in the present.
These remarkably rich texts from Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 are complemented by the account of the risen Jesus’ bestowal of the Holy Spirit on his disciples in John 20. On the evening of Easter Sunday the risen Jesus mysteriously appears to his disciples, bids them peace, asks them to carry on his mission and gives them the gift of the Spirit. This Johannine text allows us to grasp some important aspects of the gift of the Spirit.
The Johannine account emphasizes the continuity between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. During Jesus’ farewell discourse at the Last Supper (see John 13–17), he repeatedly promises to send the Advocate or Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) after his own physical departure. Thus the Spirit becomes the stand-in or representative for the earthly Jesus. The passage also highlights the power of the Holy Spirit. Even though the earthly Jesus had died and was to ascend to his Father, the disciples will not be left alone. Rather, the Spirit will provide the power by which the movement begun by Jesus can continue. Moreover, the gift of the Spirit expresses itself in mission. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is described as the one sent from God. Now the risen Jesus urges his disciples to carry on his mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The gift of the Spirit will enable them to fulfill that commission.
Pentecost is a day for positive thoughts and emotions. We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit. We have been promised that the Spirit’s guidance will last forever. And as we share the gifts of the Spirit, we carry on the work initiated by the Son of God.