Today is the feast of Pentecost. A powerful, but strange collection of images surround us. Tongues of fire; strange languages; Cretans; mighty winds; thunder; lightning; holy Spirit gifts; smoke … and more.
The word Pentecost comes from the Greek language, where it simply means the ‘fiftieth’ day. It is the name for a Jewish feast, which in the Hebrew language it is called Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. It occurs seven weeks (or a ‘week of weeks’) after another Jewish feast, called Passover. Passover is the celebration of freedom from slavery.
For all Jews at the time — like Jesus, Mary and his disciples who were all Jewish — everything is shaped by the story of the Exodus. They remember the story of that night when God heard their cry and acted to bring them from slavery to freedom. When they fled from their slavery in Egypt, the book of Exodus (12:38) says that a “rabble of non-Israelites went with them” – so people from different nations, tribes, languages and ways of life were also freed from slavery that night. Rich and poor; Hebrews and Gentiles; men and women; light skin and dark. God always has bigger plans for his people and through them for the world. Plans that include you and me.
If this is what we commemorate each year when we remember the Passover at Easter, what happened fifty days later that we commemorate at Pentecost? Well, that is where all of this gets very interesting. After the Jewish people escaped from Egypt, they made their way through the wilderness to the Sea, where the Lord turned the sea into dry land so that they could all pass across to safety.
After a great celebration, the Jewish people and the rabble make their way towards Mount Sinai. When they finally reach Sinai the Lord addresses himself to the whole people assembled together – not only to Moses alone. This is the only recorded time in the Bible that God spoke not just to an individual or a few people, but to the whole nation together. It is here that the Lord tells the people that ‘you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.’ (Exodus 19:5-6) Essentially God is inviting the whole people to be his presence in the world. He has rescued them from the slavery of Egypt so that they can be a sign of liberation, justice and healing in the world. This is what it means to be a priest and to be holy.
Immediately after re-establishing the covenant with the entire people, Moses brings the whole people out of the camp to meet God, and the Lord then descends upon the mountain in fire, smoke, and the voice of the Lord thundered (Exodus 19:16-19). In the Book of Acts we have tongues of fire, a mighty rushing wind and the voices of the apostles that are understood by all of the people.
Although the formation of the Church on the day of Pentecost is something remarkably new, it is also something that has deep roots in God’s original plan and call for his people. The Spirit’s gifts are never given just for ourselves. All the gifts are always for the building up of the whole body – the Church. The assumption of the Church is that every baptised Christian has received some gift of the Holy Spirit. Some people may receive the more extraordinary forms, but all of us will receive something that is equally beautiful and amazing in our own life.
Father, continue to send your Holy Spirit upon us as your holy people that we can be a kingdom of priests to build up your church in service of the world. Amen.