Sermon on the Pentecost Sunday

by a Dominican Friar

“When the days of Pentecost were accomplished, they were all together in one place.”

Why did the Ascension have to precede the coming of the Holy Ghost? If He had wished, and if it had been the Father’s will, our Lord could have given the Holy Ghost to the Church while He was still living on earth. But that was not fitting. As He says to the apostles at the Last Supper, “If I do not go, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” If the Holy Ghost had come as a result of Christ’s prayer while Christ was still living on earth, this would not have manifested the divinity of Christ sufficiently. After all, Elias had brought down fire from heaven by his prayer, on several occasions. No, our Lord first ascends to heaven, to show that He is not just asking for but sending the Paraclete. Only a divine Person can send a divine Person. So Pentecost completes the manifestation of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

It also completes the manifestation of the Blessed Trinity. Speaking to Nicodemus, near the start of His public ministry, our Lord had told him that the Father so loved the world that He sent into the world His only Son. We can say now that the Father and the Son have so loved the Church that They have sent to her Their only Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Ghost formed the Church out of the disciples gathered in the cenacle, just as on the day of Creation, He had formed the earth out of the formless waters. He made Himself the soul of the Church, abiding in her for ever.

Why did the coming of the Holy Ghost happen today, on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection?  The number fifty, in the Scriptures, has a mystical meaning. It is the number of the forgiveness of sins. That is why, in the Law of Moses, all debts were annulled after fifty years. It is also why the fiftieth psalm, the Miserere, is the psalm which the Church uses most often to obtain the forgiveness of sins. So the Holy Ghost came on the fiftieth day to show that, in the words of one of the prayers of this season, He Himself is the remission of sins. When He dwells in a soul, as He dwells in every soul in a state of grace, that person is no longer a slave of sin.

We can think of other reasons why God waited until the fiftieth day before sending down His Spirit upon the Church. He wanted to honour the apostles and disciples, and especially the Blessed Virgin, by allowing them, in a certain sense, to obtain the coming of the Holy Ghost by their prayers. This provides a figure for all time of what the Church can obtain when her members persevere, praying “in one place”; that is, in one faith. If they can obtain the Spirit Himself, how much more can they obtain lesser gifts.

Again, it was necessary to wait till the fiftieth day, because that was a feast day; or, more accurately, God had placed a feast of Pentecost into the Law of Moses to be a foreshadowing of the true Pentecost. When the Jews came out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, they spent seven weeks in the desert before coming to Mount Sinai. On the fiftieth day after crossing the Red Sea, Moses went up the mountain and received the two tablets of the Law. Every year, the Jews commemorated the crossing of the Red Sea at their feast of Passover, and they commemorated the giving of the Law at their feast of Pentecost. Just as our Lord transformed the Passover, by passing from death to life, so the Holy Ghost transformed Pentecost. He gave the apostles not two tablets of stone, but Himself, who dwells within us as; so to say, a new Law. But He does not only instruct us about what we must do, as the old Law did, but He also gives us the power to accomplish it, which the old Law could not do.  

The Holy Ghost was sent and came with the rushing of a mighty wind and the appearance of tongues of fire. When the prophet Elias came to Mount Horeb, there was also a mighty wind, strong enough to shake the mountains, and after that a fire, but Scripture says that on that occasion, the Lord was not in the wind or the fire. But now the Holy Ghost, who is the Lord, is in the wind and the fire. Why is there such a difference? In the Old Testament, God was instructing Elias that He is slow to anger and to punish, so that the prophet could learn to imitate the divine longanimity. Here, He is using external signs to testify to the effects which His Spirit produces on those whom It fills. We can see at least three effects.

In eternity, the Father and the Son “breathe forth” the Holy Ghost by their love. So we can say that, just as the Son is the Word of God, so the Holy Ghost is the love of God. Therefore He manifests Himself in a mighty wind; for just as a strong wind drives all objects before it, so love impels the lover to act, and to overcome all obstacles. If this is true even of human love, how much more of divine love? This is the first effect that is signified at Pentecost: divine charity filling the soul, moving the soul wherever God wills.

It is because the Holy Ghost is love that He is called the Life-giver. As we say in the Creed, He is Dominus et Vivificans, the Lord and giver of life.  A soul that does not love God is dead. A soul that has the Holy Ghost dwelling within it cleaves to God, and therefore is alive.  

The second visible sign is the fire, and this suggests a second effect of the coming of the Holy Ghost: purification. The apostles, it seems, still needed some purification. Even on the day of the Ascension, although they had benefitted from several appearances of the risen Christ, their thoughts were still somewhat earthly, as when they asked Him whether He was about to restore the kingdom of Israel. After the day of Pentecost, they no longer have any earthly hopes; their desires are entirely fixed on the heavenly kingdom. Listen to the words of St John Chrysostom, speaking of how the apostles were transformed by Pentecost, so that they no longer had any fears: “Were they not exposed to seditions and conspiracies: to fire, and sword, and wild beasts? Did not war beset them from every side in ten thousand forms? And were they affected in their minds by all these things any more than they would have been at seeing them in a dream or in a picture?” So they even rejoiced after having been beaten at the orders of the Sanhedrin, that they had been counted worthy to suffer something for the name of the Lord Jesus.

The third effect is in the shape which the fire took. The Holy Ghost came as it were in tongues of fire, resting upon the head of each. This, by the way, seems to be the reason for the association of this feast with the roses which blossom at this time of year. The rose petals are reminiscent of the tongues of fire, and so in the Middle Ages this feast day was sometimes known as “the Easter of Roses”, and in some churches, rose petals were dropped from the roof. The shape of a tongue, of course, is very fitting for the apostles, who were to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Most of the apostles did not leave writings behind them, but their tongues all became instruments with which the Holy Ghost wrote His law in the hearts of the new believers. Yet if the tongues of fire rested on the heads of all, they therefore rested also over the heads of our Lady and the other holy women. These did not have the task of preaching publicly, but no doubt they, and especially our Lady, instructed many converts in the truths of the faith in private conversations. And a greater office even than preaching is the office of praising God. The tongues of fire, therefore, also denote the gift of the Holy Ghost given to all the faithful to make them able to offer acceptable praise to God the Father through His only Son. 

This day is a great day, because it is the birthday of the Church. Just as Moses brought down the tablets of the old Law to the multitude, Peter delivers the message of the gospel to the crowd that had gathered in the street below the cenacle. Perhaps this was another reason why these things happened on a feast day; in order that there would be many people in Jerusalem who had the leisure to listen to him speak. And he spoke with such authority that the Church multiplied thirty-fold, as in the parable of the sower, with three thousand souls being added to their number. May the Holy Ghost, who dwells in the Church forever as her indestructible soul, inspire the successors of the apostles with such a spirit of faith, with such firmness and clarity of teaching, and zeal for the name of Christ, that many souls may be added today to those who believe. 

“Send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”