The Fiftieth Day


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’, Greek for ‘the 50th day’. 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 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 name for the feast used by some Christian traditions is ‘Whitsunday’. The Whitsunday Islands off Queensland’s tropical north coast were so named by Captain James Cook because they were sighted on the day of Pentecost.

The German word for the feast is Pfingsten, so people from the northern suburbs of Brisbane might think of the coming of Holy Spirit as they drive along Pfingst Road.

Originally the term Pentecost was used to refer to the whole of the Easter season. 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.

The feast of Pentecost soon had an octave added to it, like Easter. In the Roman Rite the octave was removed when the liturgical calendar was revised in 1969.

Pentecost was also celebrated with a vigil at which baptism was commonly administered, again just like Easter. 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 the good news of Christ, 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. The Spirit ‘seizes’ and ‘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 renewal 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