“When the days of Pentecost were drawing to a close ... parted tongues of fire settled upon each of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.”
The statement in today’s epistle reminds us that Pentecost was a holy day observed by the Jewish people, even before it came to be a Christian holy day. “Pentecost” is actually a Greek word, which refers to the fifty day interval between Easter and this day on which we commemorate the descent of the Holy Ghost. In the Old Testament, the fifty days were reckoned from the beginning of the barley harvest, which began after Passover—the beginning of the harvest was marked by the waving of new sheaves of barley before the Presence of God in the Temple, and the end was marked with the offering of two loaves of fine wheaten flour, after fifty days. The Hebrew name for the feast was “Shavuot,” which suggests a “sabbath of sabbaths,” or seven times seven weeks, and then a day for the actual observance. In Catholic terminology we might say that the feast of Easter is celebrated with an “octave of octaves”—not just seven days plus one, but seven times seven days plus one.
You will occasionally hear of Sunday referred to as the “eighth day.” God created the universe out of nothing on the first day, and worked for six days to complete it, resting on the seventh. Thus, in Judaism, the Sabbath, or Lord’s day. is Saturday. But for Christians, it is the eighth day, Sunday, when Christ rose from the dead that we celebrate. For mankind, the pinnacle of God’s creation, fell from grace—and only with Easter Sunday was it restored. Even in the Old Testament there is a similar observance—God is said to have created the universe on the first day of the month of Tishri (late September or early October), the day called Rosh Hashanah—and a day of Atonement for sin, Yom Kippur, is observed with eight days between them. Even in Judaism, they look forward to the healing of creation through repentance and forgiveness.
If Easter Sunday is thought of as the “birthday of the redeemed,” then its “octave of octaves” on Pentecost can be thought of as the “birthday of the Church”—the means by which men and women make their repentance and receive their forgiveness. If we look back on the Scripture readings of the past fifty days, we see clearly that the Apostles did not have much of a plan. They huddled in the Upper Room of the Last Supper for a while, in fear of those who had put Christ to death. Then, perhaps they were restless, the ventured north to Galilee. But at least by Ascension Thursday they were back in Jerusalem. And following our Lord’s Ascension they were back in the Upper Room again, where “with one mind [they] continued steadfastly in prayer with the women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren.”
But if, on the forty-ninth day, they had no plan, look at what happened on the fiftieth day, the day of Pentecost. They were in the Upper Room, still afraid of what might befall them outside. The Holy Ghost came upon them, appearing like flames of fire upon their heads. Almost immediately, they went outside, where the city was filled with people who had assembled to celebrate the feast. The Gospel describes a sort of two-fold miracle. It says that the Apostles “began to speak in foreign tongues.” But God granted much more than just the ability to speak a foreign language, for we are told that even though the people visiting Jerusalem were from all over the known world, each was able to understand the Apostles in his own language: A Jew from Rome heard the same thing as a Jew from Baghdad, the same thing as a Jew from Crete, and yet all understood as though they were being spoken to in their own native languages.
But, for our purposes today, it may be even more significant that, in spite of this miracle of languages, not everyone believed. Perhaps not all of them understood, for if we read a little further in the Acts of the Apostles, we find that there were disbelievers—and that the disbelievers took the speaking in various languages to be nothing more than the babbling of drunk men, “full of new wine.” Yet, in spite of their disbelief, Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, got up and preached a sermon which demonstrated in very few words that Jesus was the fulfillment of the various prophecies of the Old Testament. And, not only were they convinced, but also they were filled with compunction as Peter concluded that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ, whom you crucified.”
“What should we do?” they asked Peter. “You must repent of your sins and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, and [you also] will receive the Holy Ghost,” was Peter’s answer. And the Scripture records that “about three thousand souls” were baptized that day.
My contention is that this willingness to address the crowds, and the ability to convince them, was a greater miracle than even the gift of languages. For this example of Peter was the prototype of all of the preaching of the Apostles and their successors throughout time and the ages. This was the demonstration that even those who could not be converted by miracles, could still receive the divine gift of faith through the work of the Holy Ghost and the preaching of the truth.
This should be a powerful lesson to priests, and indeed, to all of us who, through the reception of the Holy Ghost, have been made soldiers of Christ. Among young priests, particularly, there is the notion that they will bring many people to Christ by learning the principles of the Faith with great precision, and becoming able to teach those principles in an articulate manner. Nothing could be further from the truth! The vast majority of people do not think with their minds—they “think,” rather, with their hearts, and are not persuaded by even the most finely honed truth. Just a little further on in the Acts of the Apostles we see the Deacon Stephen being stoned to death in return for his truthful eloquence.
Now, the hearts with which people “think” may be reached in some degree through good example. That Peter was willing to stand up to them, and preach the truth to them, even in the midst of a hostile Jerusalem, had to count for something. But good example is not enough. Only those can be converted to Jesus Christ who have received God’s grace—God must touch their hearts in order for their minds to believe.
If, as soldiers of Christ, we are concerned about drawing our children to Jesus Christ, or our friends, or our neighbors, or our nation, then we must be people of prayer, nourished with God’s Sacraments, and filled with the Holy Ghost. Only this divine and personified love of God can touch the hearts of the lukewarm and the unbelieving.
Let me close with a few verses from the prose read all this week between the epistle and the Gospel (the “Sequence, it is called)—for the Church, in Her sacred liturgy, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, is far more eloquent than I: