Scripture in Depth
Pentecost originated as a final celebration of the ingathering of the grain harvest, which had begun at Passover. Later Judaism transformed it into a feast of salvation history celebrating the giving of the Law at Sinai and the establishment of Israel as God’s people.
All these associations were carried over into the Christian feast that marked the conclusion of the great fifty days. The grain harvest and the Law are replaced by the gift of the Spirit, and the constitution of the old Israelis replaced by the constitution of the new. The feast of the Law becomes the feast of the Spirit.
Reading I: Acts 2:1-11
There is no unanimity in the New Testament about a single outpouring of the Spirit. The gospel of the day, as we shall see, places the gift of the Spirit on Easter Sunday evening, while Acts 2 puts it on Pentecost.
Originally, perhaps, the gift of the Spirit was associated with each of the resurrection appearances, and perhaps the Pentecost story corresponds to the otherwise unknown appearance to the five hundred (1 Cor 15:6).
Historically, this appearance marks the foundation of the Church as a wider community than the original Twelve and the beginning of the kerygma. Perhaps, as a later part of this story suggests (the crowd’s suspicion that the apostles were full of new wine), the beginning of the kerygma was marked by an outburst of glossolalia such as Paul describes as taking place at Corinth (1 Cor 12-14).
This earlier concept of glossolalia has been overlaid with a new symbolism (whether due to Luke or to his tradition, we cannot say) in which Pentecost reverses the effect of Babel.
Responsorial Psalm: 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
This is a hymn of praise to God for his works in creation. The dominant theology of the Spirit in the wisdom literature (“the Spirit of God fills the world”) stresses the work of the Spirit in the created order.
By contrast, the New Testament concentrates almost exclusively on the eschatological work of the Spirit. The pneumatology of the New Testament is conditioned by its Christology.
When the psalmist speaks of the “renewal” of creation through the Spirit, he is probably thinking of no more than the renewal of nature at springtime.
But in Christian use it can be reinterpreted to mean the eschatological renewal of creation, a renewal of which the Church is the first fruits.
Reading II: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13
Paul’s Corinthians were very keen on glossolalia, but its effect on the community was questionable. It led to divisiveness—those who spoke in tongues treated those who did not have this particular gift as second-class citizens.
In reply, Paul insists on several things here. First, to have the Spirit means to confess that Jesus is Lord.
Here Paul’s use of the name Jesus is especially nuanced. “Jesus” means the earthly Jesus, Christ crucified.
The Corinthians regarded the death of Christ as a mere episode of the past and put all their money on the purely spiritual, ethereal Christ. Paul recalls them to the centrality of the cross, pricking the bubble of their enthusiasm.
Second, the gifts of the Spirit take different forms, not just the one form of speaking in tongues. Each gift, however unspectacular, has to be used for the common good.
Third, the gift of the Spirit must not lead to individualism but to the building up of the corporate body of the community. The Church is one body through a common baptism and a common “drinking of one Spirit.”
The latter is probably a reference to the baptismal Eucharist rather than to a rite analogous to the later rite of confirmation (see “supernatural drink” in 1 Cor 10:4). Here is a further suggestion that 1 Corinthians was written for the paschal feast.
Reading II: Galatians 5:16-25
This passage comes from the parenetic section of Galatians. Since Paul is drawing upon traditional catechetical teaching, we must not suppose that he has formulated the teaching with the situation in the Galatian churches specifically in view.
We should not, for instance, infer, as some commentators have done, that there were two parties in Galatia, one Judaizing and the other libertinist, the former being addressed in the doctrinal section of the letter, and the latter in the parenesis.
At the same time, however, the Apostle seems to have selected items from his catechetical tradition that have special bearing on the situation in the Galatian churches. These churches were seriously divided over the question of whether or not Gentile Christians should be circumcised.
It is not clear whether they were Judaizers who wanted to impose Jewish law in its totality upon the Gentile converts or whether they were syncretists who included circumcision among other extraneous elements. Probably the latter, since Paul has to remind his addressees that circumcision implies the obligation to observe the whole law.
Hence the Apostle emphasizes those works of the flesh that cause divisiveness, and those virtues that promote unity.
It is most important to note that the “flesh” is not our lower nature (so, erroneously, the NEB [ed: New English Bible, Gal 5:16]), but our unredeemed, self-centered ego. “Flesh” includes the mind as well as the body; and the sins of the mind, such as pride, are as serious as sensuality.
Equally, “Spirit” should be capitalized, for it means, not some innate “higher” nature than humanity, but the Holy Spirit of God, released through the Christ-event and made over to the believers in baptism.
Paul next introduces a second contrast, between the law and Spirit. In Galatians, law generally means law misunderstood as the way to salvation. Human beings in their autonomy mistakenly think that they can achieve salvation by their own efforts, whereas this is possible only through the Christ-event and the consequent bestowal of the Spirit.
In later Judaism the feast of Pentecost celebrated the giving of the law. It may have been this fact that led the author of Luke-Acts to introduce typology from the Sinai event into his story of the giving of the Spirit (the wind and the tongues of fire), and led Paul to draw the theological contrast between law and Spirit.
A third contrast drawn by Paul is between “works” and “fruit.” Works are, as already suggested, achievements of the self-seeking natural human being, whereas fruit is that which grows through the outside influence of grace or of the Holy Spirit.
What we have to do is to open ourselves to that influence and trust the possibility of this growth. Again, “works” is plural, whereas “fruit” is singular. It is a frequently made mistake to speak of the “fruits” of the Spirit, a mistake that enjoys the exalted precedent of Archbishop Cranmer in the Litany of the Book of Common Prayer. “Works” pull us this way and that; “fruit” expresses inner unity of character.
Finally, there is the implied contrast between the fruit of the Spirit and the giftsof the Spirit listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Is there a real difference between the two? Not too much, for love appears in 1 Cor 13 as a gift (charism), while here in Galatians it is a fruit.
Yet there is a difference. A gift is granted as an initial endowment at baptism or ordination, whereas fruit is what eventually grows within the believers through the subsequent influence of the Holy Spirit.
Gospel: John 20:19-23
We have already seen that John places the giving of the Spirit on Easter day, and we have discussed the historical and theological grounds for this.
Here, as in Acts, the Spirit empowers the Church for its mission (“even so I send you”). The mission is defined here, however, not as kerygma but as the forgiving and retaining of sins.
The traditional Catholic and High Anglican interpretation of this has seen it as a reference to the sacrament of penance, but this is probably an anachronism as far as the evangelist is concerned.
In the New Testament, forgiveness of sins is baptismal language (see Lk 24:47), and what we have here is the Johannine version of the tradition, which includes in the appearance stories the command to baptize.
Our text speaks of the giving or withholding of baptism consequent upon faith or unbelief at hearing the gospel message. Only derivatively and insofar as the sacrament of absolution is a renewal of the baptismal status can this text be stretched to cover the traditional interpretation.
If our new interpretation be sustained, it is significant that both the second reading and the gospel speak of baptism, for in patristic times Pentecost was the day when those who for some reason had missed their baptism at Easter were baptized.
Baptism was not continually administered at any time of the year because its corporate significance was paramount.
Gospel: John 15:26-27; 16:12-15
Today’s (optional) gospel reading combines the third and fifth of the five Johannine Paraclete sayings. They are closely related, for both speak of the teaching function of the Holy Spirit, of the way in which the content of the Spirit’s teaching is derived from Jesus, and therefore, since Jesus is the truth, of the Spirit as the Spirit of truth.
The first of our Paraclete sayings (the third in the Gospel of John) is closely paralleled in the synoptic tradition (Mk 13:11; Mt 10:19-20; Lk 12:12; cf. Lk 21:15) and is perhaps the original saying out of which the other ones in John developed.
As in the Synoptists, this saying is set in the context of persecution predicted for the disciples. This promise is attested so widely and in such a variety of contexts (see above) that it has a high claim to authenticity.
Jesus promised his disciples that they would have the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit as they bore witness in a situation of rejection and persecution. Perhaps this promise originally applied to their missions while Jesus was still on earth.
Since Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom of God was itself empowered by the Spirit, may we not at least suppose that the apostles’ preaching during Jesus’ earthly life was similarly empowered, although, of course, they did not receive the Spirit as a permanent endowment until Pentecost?
In the light of the Pentecost experience, the Gospel tradition both synoptic and Johannine, will then have transferred this promise to Jesus’ farewell discourse (Mk 13, Lk 21, and Jn 14-16).
The coming of the Spirit is closely tied to the person of Christ. In this passage it is “I” (=Jesus) who will send the Spirit. That is why some of us believe that the present movement underway in the Anglican communion to remove the Filioque from the Nicene Creed as a gesture to the Orthodox is misguided, despite the wording of verse 26b (“proceeds from the Father”). At least it should be asserted that the Western Church showed a sound theological instinct in adding “and the Son,” and that that addition was true to this verse (“I will send you”).
If it be objected that the Nicene Creed is talking about the immanent as opposed to the economic Trinity (the external relations of the three Persons rather than their function in salvation history), we reply that that is not what the Fourth Gospel is talking about here (see Raymond Brown, ad loc.). Perhaps the best formula would be “who proceeds from the Father through the Son,” which is what the Filioque probably intended to assert.
The most important feature of this text, though, may be its insistence on the concurrent witness of the apostles and the Spirit. The apostles and the apostolic Church after their deaths are witnesses of the Word, but the Word without Spirit may be dead, while the Spirit without Word may run wild. Word and Spirit, apostolic witness and witness of the Spirit—these must be held together, though they have often been separated in the history of the Christian Church.
The second part of our reading, as already noted, comprises the fifth Paraclete saying. Its point is very similar to our last remark on the third saying. If the apostles are to bear witness, they must constantly be guided back to the Jesus tradition.
The Spirit brings no new revelation but does bring a constantly renewed and ever deeper understanding of the original revelation. To suppose that there can be any additional revelations over and above that which was revealed in Christ is to deny the eschatological character of that revelation.
It is puzzling, however, to read further that the Spirit “will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13). This has suggested to some commentators new apocalyptic revelations like those of the Johannine Apocalypse.
Can this be the intention of the fourth evangelist (who, despite other affinities, is so different in his eschatological outlook from the Seer who wrote Revelation)?
It is more likely that our passage means “interpreting to each generation the contemporary significance of what Jesus has said and done” (R. Brown, thus reinforcing the general import of these two Paraclete sayings.)
**From Saint Louis University