Celebrating Pentecost


The theme for World Youth Day Sydney 2008, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses"(Acts 1:8), focuses on the sending of the Holy Spirit which is celebrated liturgically at the feast of Pentecost.

The Jewish Feast of Weeks, referred to in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, celebrated the completion of the grain harvest. Because it was held fifty days after Passover, it was given the name “Pentecost”, Greek for “the 50th day”.

In John’s gospel Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples on the day of resurrection, but according to the account of Luke in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples fifty days after the resurrection, so the same title “Pentecost” was given by the Church to the feast celebrating the coming of the Spirit.

Originally the term Pentecost was used to refer to the whole of the Easter season but during the 4th century, this unified season was divided into separate commemorations, with the ascension being celebrated 40 days after Easter day and Pentecost 10 days later.

Pentecost Sunday is one of the two celebrations during the year that has an obligatory sequence, the other being Easter Sunday. The sequence is a long hymn text which appears after the second reading and before the Gospel acclamation.

It is a challenge to liturgy planners to ensure that the sequence is a joyful expression of the festival rather that a long, “dead” time. One possibility is to have the whole assembly join in one of the many sung settings of Veni, Sancte Spiritus (‘Come, Holy Spirit’) at Masses on Pentecost Sunday.

Sequences also provide suitable background for some form of liturgical movement, so another option is to sing or recite the sequence during the Gospel procession as the book is carried through the assembly in solemn fashion accompanied by candles and incense, culminating in the joyful acclamation: “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Alleluia!”

The symbol of a dove is commonly found on Pentecost vestments and decorations but of the 331 direct references to the Spirit in the Bible, only three liken the Spirit to a dove. More common descriptions are of “fire” and “wind”. The Spirit “seizes”, is “poured out”, “lifts up”. These dynamic references reflect the sense of excitement and zeal for mission of the early disciples.

Those parts of Australia that have experienced cyclones and destructive storms in recent months will be only too aware of the impact of wind. Fluttering banners or kites and strategically placed wind chimes evoke this sense of movement and power more effectively than pictures of doves.

In an article in Liturgy News several years ago, Fr Morgan Batt described the unifying and celebratory effect created when parishioners responded positively to his suggestion that they wear red, the liturgical colour of the day, to recall the fire of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

If the image of tongues of fire is used, it needs to be genuine. The flickering light of a crackling fire or large candle captures the eye and imagination in a way that reproductions on banners and chasubles can never do.

Light immortal, light divine,
Visit thou these hearts of thine,
And our inmost being fill.


Elizabeth Harrington