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: Genesis 11:1-9 or Exodus 19:3-8a, 16-20b
or Ezeikiel 37:1-14 or Joel 3:1-5
The Lectionary provides four alternatives for today’s first reading: the tower of Babel (Genesis); the theophany at Mount Sinai (Exodus); the vision of the dry bones (Ezekiel); the prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit (Joel).
The first two passages were undoubtedly in the mind of the author of Luke-Acts when he wrote the Pentecost account. He sees the preaching with tongues, which he interprets as the gift of foreign languages, as a sign of the gospel’s transcendence of the divisions among humankind that resulted from the building of the tower of Babel.
The gospel speaks to all people in their own language and so restores the unity that had been broken by human sin. The catholic Church is the advance guard of reunited humanity.
The Exodus theophany is probably alluded to in the symbolism of the tongues of fire and the rushing wind. The feast of Pentecost was interpreted in later Judaism as the celebration of the giving of the Law. The early Church sees a contrast between the giving of the Law and the outpouring of the Spirit, a contrast already suggested by Jeremiah and Ezekiel and expounded systematically in the Pauline writings.
The prophecy of Joel is expressly cited in Peter’s speech at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21 = Joel 2:28-32). In the prophet’s vision, the descent of the Spirit was probably conceived in somewhat narrow, nationalistic terms. “All flesh” meant, for Joel, all of Israel. His point is that in the renewed, eschatological community the Spirit will not merely descend occasionally upon charismatic leaders, like the judges, kings, and prophets of old, but will be shared by all members of the community.
It is surprising that the passage from Ezekiel is never expressly utilized in the New Testament, though it seems to underlie much of the New Testament thought on the Spirit. Paul in particular associates the Spirit with resurrection—both Christ’s resurrection (Rom 1:4) and the future resurrection of the faithful (Rom 8:11).
But nowhere does the New Testament speak explicitly of the resurrection of the community as an event within history effected by the gift of the Spirit. Yet, there can be no doubt that the New Testament does understand the Christian community as the people of God, eschatologically renewed.
This is evidenced by its appropriation of the titles and prerogatives used in the Old Testament for the community of the old covenant. The vision of Ezekiel has a special appeal today, when there is so much concern for the Church’s renewal.
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: Romans 8:22-27
The first paragraph of this reading picks up the suggestion of the cosmic dimensions of the Spirit’s work emphasized in the refrain of the responsorial psalm: “Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.”
The Christian community is described as those who have the first fruits of the Spirit, which seems to indicate that the whole cosmos is destined ultimately to be renewed by the same Spirit. But because Christians still exist in the body, they are still part of this creation, and as such they share its groanings, its longing for redemption.
The passage does not explicitly say so, but it would be consistent with Paul’s apocalyptic expectations elsewhere to infer that the redemption of our bodies means being clothed (2 Cor 5) with the spiritual body (1 Cor 15) and will coincide with the renewal of the whole cosmos, the new heaven and earth.
It is surprising to find Paul here equating “sonship” with the final redeemed state instead of thinking of it as a status already granted in baptism (contrast Gal 4:5-7). At first sight this looks like a flat contradiction, but Paul probably means that the final redemption will make plain what is true of the believers already here and now, though in a hidden way (see 1 Jn 3:2).
The second paragraph turns to the work of the Spirit within the community here and now. The Spirit helps the infirmity of our prayers by making intercession for us. What does Paul mean by “sighs too deep for words”? Some see here a reference to speaking in tongues—glossolalia—like that at Corinth. Another, more plausible interpretation is that the Spirit takes our inarticulate petitions, translates them into the divine language, and presents them to God as prayer in his name and according to his will.
Gospel: John 7:37-39
On the last day of the feast of Tabernacles, there was a ceremony of drawing water, accompanied by the reading of Is 12:3. Some commentators think that this provides the background for Jesus’ invitation: “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink.”
Two other interrelated questions are much discussed in connection with this passage: What is the source of the quotation in verse 38 (“Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water”), and whose heart is referred to in the quotation—the believer’s or Christ’s? It seems best, with Raymond Brown, to take the “his” as Christ’s and to see an allusion to Moses’ striking the rock to produce water in the wilderness (see 1 Cor 10:4: “the Rock was Christ”).
This brings the whole pronouncement into line with John’s doctrine of the Spirit.
The farewell discourses tell us that Jesus dies to make the Spirit available to his own. When his side is pierced after the crucifixion, water as well as blood comes out in symbolic fulfillment of this promise, while his conferral of the Spirit upon the Eleven after his glorification on Easter Sunday night is its actual fulfillment.
This Gospel reading reminds us that the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost is the outcome of Christ’s redemptive work. Easter and Pentecost are inseparable.
Reginald H. Fuller
**From Saint Louis University