What we cannot do on our own power, God does for us on Pentecost. He sends his Holy Spirit who unites God's children into a community where all are respected and all are loved. He forms the disciples of Jesus into the Church. Pentecost is, thus, not only the birthday of the Church, but also the feast of true hope for humanity.
Ten days after the Ascension, 120 followers of Jesus were gathered in Jerusalem. In obedience to the command of the Lord Jesus, they were waiting and praying for the promise of the Holy Spirit. They may have been very eager for the expected gift, but they were also very fearful. They were meeting behind closed doors.
By law, all Jews living within twenty miles of Jerusalem had to attend the Pentecost feast in that city. To their number were added the thousands of other Jews from neighbouring districts and countries. About a half-million people would have been in the Holy City for the event of Pentecost that Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles.
"When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
"Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, 'Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?' " (Act 2:1-8).
According to rabbinic tradition, on the fiftieth day ( pentecostos) following the Exodus from Egypt, God gave the Torah to Moses on Mt Sinai. The Torah was written on the tablets of stone by "the finger of God" (Ex 31:18; Deut 9:10), that is, by the Spirit of God (compare Luke 11:20 with Matthew 12:28). On the fiftieth day after Easter, God gives the Holy Spirit, the perfect law of liberty, not written on stones, but within our hearts (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17).
Pentecost changes the disciples. No more fear. No more division. No more closed doors. They pour into the streets and preach the gospel and they are understood. Three years earlier, John the Baptist had predicted, "One mightier than I is coming. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Mk 3:6.8). The prophecy is now fulfilled.
Fire burns away what is useless. Fire refines what is noble. Fire melts the cold and unites the divided. On Pentecost, the fire of the Holy Spirit purifies and refines, unites and inspires the hearts of the disciples. As one Church united in faith, the disciples of Jesus burn with love for the Lord and the desire to share him with all.
When Luke speaks to us in Acts about the tongues of fire (cf. Acts 2:3) at Pentecost, he connects what takes place in Jerusalem with what took place on top of Mt Sinai in the desert in the time of Moses. The Jewish Hellenistic writer Philo explains that God's words at Sinai came first as flames which then became words and voices. These words from God were divided into seventy tongues of flames – i.e., the tongues of the 70 nations. God's voice at Sinai separated into tongues of flame that went throughout the earth, so that all nations could hear: "I am the Lord your God ... you shall have no other gods before me" (Ex 20:2-3).
On Sinai, according to rabbinic tradition, God's Word was heard by all the nations, but only Israel responded and became his people. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, God's word is now heard and understood by all. What astonished those who witnessed the Pentecost event was not so much that those filled with the Holy Spirit were speaking in so many tongues. Rather it was the fact that when the disciples spoke, those present heard and understood them in their own language (Act 2:18).
Thus what began on Mt Sinai with the formation of the God's People comes to completion in the Paschal Mystery on Pentecost. The Church is born. She transcends the boundaries of nations and the divisions of man.
The Holy Spirit, who is the love of God poured out into our hearts (cf. Rm 5:5), opens our hearts and makes them capable of understanding other people. Human pride always creates divisions. The Holy Spirit draws us together. Individualism throws up walls of indifference and separation. The Holy Spirit breaks down barriers and unites. Selfishness breeds confusion. The Holy Spirit creates communion.
The Holy Spirit makes us the dwelling-place of God, the holy temple. He brings about the one change for which the world longs. He makes us, so diverse, one from the other, members of the Church. And "the Church is that portion of humanity [which] ... has peace as its privileged manifestation. It is the New Jerusalem, still imperfect because it is yet a pilgrim in history, but able to anticipate in some way the heavenly Jerusalem" (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily on the Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, Sunday, 25 November 2007). Pentecost is truly the feast of hope for humanity.
Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, and is chairman of the US Bishops' Committee on Liturgy. The above article has been reprinted with the permission of The Beacon, the newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson in which this article was first published.