The Jewish Roots of Pentecost

May 22th, 2024
Fr. Fernando Morales L.C.
The Jewish Roots of Pentecost

These days, leading up to the feast of Pentecost, let us ask for the gift of the Spirit of Christ so that we may have his same sentiments, his same surrender, and his same love in us.

To understand our Christian faith, we need to know our Jewish roots, as the Old Testament is the language in which the New Testament is written.

Regarding the mystery of Pentecost, it is also a feast of Jewish origin. The word Pentecost is Greek and means "fiftieth," which is the name that Jews in the diaspora gave to the Hebrew festival of Shavuot, a Hebrew word meaning "weeks" or "the feast of the seven weeks."

All the people of the Middle East had an agricultural festival for the time of the harvest, and Israel fixed it fifty days or seven weeks (49 days) after Passover.

Passover, at the end of winter, at the beginning of spring, marks the moment when life resurfaces and reminds Israel of its resurgence after the slavery of Egypt and its liberation. It is the first of the three great feasts of the year. Fifty days later, at the time of the wheat harvest, is the occasion when the Hebrews commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. And this will be the second great feast of the year, Shavuot or Pentecost, which we focus on today. The third is called Sukkot and recalls the passage through the desert.

When Moses received the Law, "all of Sinai was smoking, because the Lord had descended amid the fire, and the smoke rose like a furnace, and all the people trembled. The sound of the trumpet became louder and louder." (Exodus 19:18-19)

The Law (Torah in Hebrew) is the set of rules that constitute Judaism and are found in the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch). Jewish tradition identifies 613 rules that range from prayer to the most ordinary things like food, clothing, hairstyle, hygiene, work, and rest, but which Christian tradition has seen summarized essentially in the Ten Commandments of Sinai (Exodus 20).

This detailed and exhaustive Law is the most incredible pride of the Jewish people and its seal of identity. It is God's wisdom shared with His People to make them holy People of His own, wise and chosen. "If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples" (Exodus 19:5). This is what is celebrated in Shavuot, the goodness of God who wanted to give this unique and exclusive Law to His People.

This is how we arrive in Jerusalem forty days after the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel, according to St. Luke, places on that day the Ascension of Jesus to heaven, who, before leaving, ordered his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until He sent his promise. What promise was he talking about? He made The one at the Last Supper: "I will send you the Spirit of truth from the Father, who proceeds from the Father" (John 15:26).

But that same promise had been made by the prophets:

"I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone from you and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them." (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

"I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions." (Joel 2:28)

That same promise was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem. The disciples, obedient to Jesus' instruction, remained in the Upper Room for nine days praying, in union with some women, including the Blessed Virgin Mary (Acts 1:14). It would be the first Pentecost novena in history.

So, seven weeks after Passover, on the fiftieth day (Pentecost), "when they were all together in one place, suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them." (Acts 2:1-4).

Just as at Sinai, where there was the sound of trumpets, on Mount Zion (Jerusalem), there was also the sound of a mighty wind. And just as God descended amid fire before Moses, in the Upper Room, there appeared tongues of fire that settled on each of them. Fire, the sign of God's presence, no longer marked a mountain or a temple, but each individual, the living temple of the presence of the Spirit.

There are many similarities between the Sinai event and the event on Mount Zion thirteen hundred years later. Still, the difference is that the disciples began to speak in different languages. This Law that God now gave would no longer be only in Hebrew, but the Torah would be given to all the world's peoples. The gift of God's Law would now be universal.

And this Law would be written, "not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of flesh hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:3). That is, it would not be a law of letters, of external obligations, of precepts and prescriptions, but a law that must spring from within, a law of the Spirit, born of love and surpassing any external fulfillment. Not just a law of minimums (do not kill, do not steal), but a law of maximums (give your life for your enemy, be generous with the needy). A law that is entirely summed up in the commandment of love, of true love.

Just as creation did not occur only at the beginning of the world but occurs in every instant, the infusion of the Spirit of Christ that begets the Church is something daily, without which we would cease to exist as the People of God. This event of the gift of the Spirit is not only something that happened two thousand years ago in Jerusalem but continues to happen daily in the Church, in communities, in homes, and in each of the Christians.

These days, leading up to the feast of Pentecost, let us ask for the gift of the Spirit of Christ so that we may have his same sentiments, his same surrender, and his same love in us.

Pentecost's song of Fr. Fernando:
El Evangelio desde Sion, Pentecostés:

Father Fernando Morales, LC, Vice Chargé of the Holy See for the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem, publishes a weekly reflection on the Sunday liturgy from the original places of the Holy Land in the series "The Gospel from Zion" on YouTube. He also produces and publishes music inspired by the Sunday liturgy each week.