Within the Jewish Liturgical Year, there were seven major feasts, three of which were considered “major feasts” and were commanded as times when the males were to “appear before the Lord God” in Jerusalem (c.f. Exodus 23:14-17). These three major feasts were the feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year, and the harvest festival. The Harvest festival, or the Feast of Weeks was to occur on the fiftieth day after Passover (there was some disagreement among the Pharisees and Sadducees as to when the actual feast was to be celebrated). In later antiquity, it would come to be as Pentecost (Greek for “fiftieth”) by the Greek-speaking Jews. It was for the celebration of this feast that many Jews from throughout the world (Parthians, Medes, Mesopotamian, Egyptians, etc. as listed in Acts 2:9-10) had gathered when the Holy Spirit was finally manifest on that day.
This helps to explain why so many were gathered on that day in Jerusalem to witness the power from on high, but it does not necessarily explain why it had to be that feast day. In other words, why was it that the Jewish Feast of Weeks found its fulfillment on Pentecost?
A word first about the concept of “fulfillment.” When we hear this term used, there is a tendency to think “it had to happen that day in order to fulfill the meaning of Pentecost.” In short, we can think that the purpose of Pentecost was to fulfill the Feast of Weeks. Thinking in these terms there is a danger of thinking that the Feast of Weeks is obsolete and now only Pentecost matters. Properly understood though we should attempt to see things the other way around. The purpose of the Feast of Weeks was to make Pentecost understandable. It may no longer be efficacious, but it is not devoid of meaning. God was so demanding in the rubrics surrounding the Jewish liturgy because He wanted them to act as clear signs of the thing they were pointing to. The Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost would have recognized what was happening and were instantly moved upon hearing Peter’s explanation. But Pentecost was not just for them. By deepening our own understanding of the Feast of Weeks, we can enter more fully into the celebration and join those first Christians in being “cut to the heart.”
This challenge of deepening our understanding of the Jewish celebrations is echoed in the Catechism:
A better knowledge of the Jewish people’s faith and religious life as professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of certain aspects of Christian liturgy…The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover. Christians and Jews both celebrate the Passover. For Jews, it is the Passover of history, tending toward the future; for Christians, it is the Passover fulfilled in the death and Resurrection of Christ, though always in expectation of its definitive consummation. (CCC 1096, emphasis added)
In ancient Israel, the Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival in which loaves of bread were offered to the Lord as a gift of the first fruits (a minor Jewish festival celebrated just after the Feast of Unleavened Bread). It was accompanied by sacred rest and sacrifices (see Num 28:26-31). It was by the death of the grains of wheat, the first fruits of the wheat that the bread was to be baked. This grain then takes on the value of a sign of the One Whom “God raised up” (Acts 2:32). As the definitive sacrifice, He ascended to heaven where God received Him and showed His approval by pouring out His Spirit by a strongly felt sign (Acts 2:33). Rising on the day after Passover, that is the feast of first fruits, Christ is “the first fruits of those who have died” (1Cor 15:20).
The Feast of Weeks
By this powerful sign, the Apostles now become the harvesters. And on this day, the harvest is great, drawing 3000 souls to the Lord. This number is far from arbitrary and it would immediately bring to mind the other aspect of the Feast of Weeks, namely that it was to be marked as a time to remember the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.
While God was giving the Law to Moses, the Israelites fashioned the Golden Calf. In response, the Levites were commanded “’Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!’ The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell” (Ex 32:27-28). Spiritually inebriated, the Apostles, that is the priestly successors to the Levites, will put to death the flesh of those 3000 souls, each of which will follow the law because it is written not in stone, but on their hearts (Jer 31:33).
The giving of the Law was the initiation of the Old Covenant. This indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the Faithful that will become the sign of the new Covenant, that is Baptism. Those who are claimed for Christ, the 3000, do as Peter told them— “repent and be baptized” so that they “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
The giving of the Law as part of the Old Covenant also formed Israel as the People of God—that is the visible Kingdom of God on earth. At Pentecost, the Church becomes the Kingdom of God that is open to all people. This understanding helps bring clarity to the somewhat random question and ambiguous response Our Lord gives to the Apostles when, just prior to His Ascension, they ask “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” to which He replies that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:6,8).
The Spirit of Pentecost
All of this remains mere proof-texting unless we allow the effects of Pentecost to be felt in our day. So many within the Church speak of waiting for a “New Pentecost” in which the power of the Holy Spirit will be made manifest once again. But there will be no “New Pentecost” because Pentecost was not a single event, but one that was to last perpetually. The Jews celebrated the different festivals not merely to remind them of the past, but to make the past somehow present to them so that they could participate in it. The Feast of Weeks was a time for recalling and renewing the Old Covenant and Pentecost ought to be a time that we consciously renew our participation in the New Covenant.
The first way that this should be done is through a renewed focus on our baptismal commitment to offer spiritual sacrifices unceasingly to Christ. Likewise, we should renew our commitment to the graces of Confirmation, that is when we received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and march to the Front in the battle to win souls. Offering Mass for the grace to live those two Pentecostal Sacraments to their fullest would be a worthy intention.
Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church. With this in mind, a second way to live Pentecost is to do what we all do at all birthday celebrations—show gratitude for the gift of the person and offer a gift to pay our debt of gratitude. We can often take for granted the gift of the Church and how much easier it makes our lives. Yes, we have to deal with the human elements, that is the weeds among the wheat, but the guidance that her teaching office gives us can save us from making a lot of mistakes. She speaks to nearly every aspect of our lives and offers us a sure port amidst the storms of life. Amidst a culture in which we are “tossed to and fro by every wave of false doctrine,” there is great comfort knowing we have a place to go for the Truth. By renewing our efforts to form ourselves in her teachings, to be docile to the truth and proclaim it loudly, we can pay the debt of our gratitude. We are the new harvesters in the long line of harvesters known as the Communion of Saints. Pray then, this Pentecost, that the Master of the Harvest will send more out into the fields, priests, and laity alike.