You may remember that in last Sunday’s homily I mentioned that St Luke places the Ascension of Jesus 40 days after Easter. But he doesn’t stop there. He tells us that ten days after the ascension a spectacular event took place on the 50th day after Jesus’ resurrection. This was the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on Pentecost Sunday. This coming of the Holy Spirit is presented in dramatic detail and, more importantly, it marked the beginning of the apostles’ mission of preaching the Good News of Jesus risen and reigning as Messiah, Lord and Saviour at God’s right hand. In other words, this event marks the birthday of the Christian Church with St Peter and his fellow apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit, providing dynamic leadership and by their courageous and enthusiastic witness bringing huge numbers of people to faith in the risen Lord and at the same time becoming the first members of the Christian community we now call the Church of Christ.
Pentecost is a Greek word meaning fifty. Before St Luke in his gospel gave it such significance for Christians, it was the name of a major feast in the Jewish faith, occurring 50 days after the Jewish Passover at Easter. While originally a feast celebrating the first fruits of the harvest, it came in time to mark the founding of the Jewish nation, in and by God’s giving of the Covenant and the Law on Mt Sinai that made the Jewish nation God’s People. Thus it marked the birthday of the Jewish community as the People of God after their liberation from the slavery of Egypt.
Building on this religious history, St Luke and the early Church celebrated the Feast of Pentecost for Jesus’ followers as the founding of Christ’s community, the Christian Church. Jesus had promised he would send the Holy Spirit. Now at Pentecost this promise is dramatically fulfilled and the result is the new People of God is brought to birth and begins its universal mission to spread the Good News to all the world.
When we celebrate Pentecost Sunday in the Church today we are conscious of its history but, more importantly, we focus on the Holy Spirit and that Spirit’s continuing importance for and role in the Church of Christ. It has been said that the Holy Spirit has at times been the forgotten member of the Holy Trinity and in consequence our Church, its leaders and members have at times tended to settle down within long established structures and laws and have perhaps paid less attention to growth, development and energy for improvement, renewal and reform in the Church. Today in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) and under the energetic leadership of Pope Francis our Church and all its members are called urgently to be open to the promptings of the Spirit and so commit themselves to renewal and growth. We already see important signs of this renewal in the Church community as Francis has put emphasis on local churches holding their own synods to deal with their own difficulties. Also he calls the churches in individual countries to exercise more authority in discerning and seeking solutions to their particular problems, and not to be turning to the Vatican for answers and decisions in even less important cases. For individual church members the Spirit calls us to repentance and, more positively, to growth in prayerfulness and in the Christian virtues.