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 50 days after Passover, it was given the name “Pentecost” (the 50th day) in Greek. The feast came to be regarded both by Jews and Christians as also commemorating the Giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai.

According to the account of Luke in the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples 50 days after the resurrection day, so the same title “Pentecost” was given by the Church to the feast celebrating the coming of the Spirit. Another popular name for the feast is “Whitsunday”. The Whitsunday Islands off Queensland’s tropical north coast were so named by Captain James Cook because they were sighted on that day of the Church’s calendar.

Originally the term Pentecost was used to refer to the whole of the Easter season, that 50-day period of great rejoicing following Easter, during which no fasting was allowed, prayer was always said while standing (kneeling was forbidden), and the “Alleluia” was sung frequently. 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. Egeria, the Spanish nun who visited the Holy Lands at the end of the 4th century, describes a celebration of the feast of Pentecost in her travel diary. The feast had its own octave, like Easter, from early times. In the Roman Rite the octave was removed when the liturgical calendar was revised in 1969.

Pentecost was celebrated with a vigil which, almost from the beginning, became strongly associated with the administration of baptism. In around the year 205 Tertullian, the great leader of the Church in north Africa, wrote: “After Easter, Pentecost is a most joyous time for conferring baptisms, because during that time the resurrection of the Lord was repeatedly proved among the disciples.”

The feast of Pentecost commemorates two things: the gift of the Spirit that enables us to praise and proclaim, and the birth of the Church as an active community. The gift of the Spirit, especially when visualised as tongues of fire, may be seen as a prototype for a universal mission and a mulicultural society.

The symbol of a dove, commonly found on Pentecost vestments and decorations, does not adequately capture this sense of mission and ministry enabled by the Spirit. 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.

The feast of Pentecost celebrates and enriches the sense of community renewal (birth) of the Church, the Church that proclaims salvation through the birth, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

“Father of light, from whom every good gift comes,
send your Spirit into our lives
with the power of a mighty wind,
and by the flame of your wisdom
open the horizons of our minds.

Loosen our tongues to sing your praise
in words beyond the power of speech,
for without your Spirit
we could never raise our voice in words of peace
or announce the truth that Jesus is Lord.”
(Opening Prayer, Pentecost Sunday)


Elizabeth Harrington