Why Pentecost Was a Shattering Event
Without the Holy Spirit, there’d be no Church, no Mass, no sacraments, writes FR RALPH DE HAHN in his reflection on the feast of Pentecost.
When we read the Acts of the Apostles presented by St Luke the evangelist— friend of Paul, a doctor and convert from paganism—we are highly impressed by his account of that “powerful wind from heaven” and the “tongues of fire”, followed by the amazing understanding of all present speaking foreign languages.
It is that shattering experience of Christ’s disciples, 50 days after the Resurrection of the Lord, which we refer to as Pentecost. In this particular work, Luke is not repeating whatever has already been reported on the life and teachings of the Master.
In the Acts, he presents that unique spiritual energy inside this new Body of believers that motivates its extraordinary and rapid expansion, within and even beyond the powerful Roman Empire.
Before his departure from the earth, Jesus had promised his disciples: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes to you, and then you will be my witnesses” (Acts1:8).
And when the disbelieving crowds mocked the disciples as “drinking too much new wine”, Peter stood up and declared: “This is what the prophet Joel spoke of— I will pour out my spirit on all mankind…I will display portents in heaven above and signs on earth below…and what you now see and hear is the outpouring of that Spirit” (referring to Joel 3:1-5).
Luke tells us that on that very day, 3 000 were baptised and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:14- 34).
An incomprehensible power
This is that awesome power that brought the world to be: the creation of all that is, and the new creation when the Father willed his Son, Jesus, to be born in the flesh in the great miracle of the Incarnation.
Pentecost is that renewal of incredible dimensions; a manifestation of a power beyond our comprehension. But let us not be led to believe that the Holy Spirit made his debut on this Pentecost day in Jerusalem.
For even at the very dawn of creation, “God’s spirit hovered over the waters” (Gen 1:2). So, the Holy Spirit appears as early as the second verse of the Bible!
Already the Holy Spirit was active and the psalm expresses it so beautifully: “By a word from Yahweh the heavens were made…by the breath of his mouth” (33:6).
In the scriptures, the Holy Spirit is displayed in a variety of biblical episodes—as a dove, as fire, as a powerful wind, or a gentle breeze, as living water, and also as breath!
Yes, the power of God’s spirit was very active throughout the history of his chosen people, and boldly declared by the prophets. “Listen to the words Yahweh has sent by his spirit through the prophets in the past” (Zech 7:12).
We have the cry of Ezekiel again and again. “The spirit of the Lord has entered me, made me stand up and spoke to me” (Ezekiel 3:24), and “the Spirit came and lifted me up” (Ezekiel 11:24).
How often do we hear the cry: “It is the Lord who speaks!”
The prophet Micah professes that he is “full of strength because of the Spirit of Yahweh” (3:8). Nehemiah is angry with his people: “You gave them your spirit to make them wise…you admonished them by your spirit, through your prophets, but they would not listen” (Micah 9:20,30).
The first book of Samuel records the anointing of King Saul: “The Spirit of Yahweh will seize on you, you will go into ecstasy, and you will be another man” (10:6).
We also recall the story of Samuel, taking the horn of oils and anointing David: “…and the spirit of the Lord seized on David, and stayed with him” (1 Sam 16:13). Then David himself declares: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me…His words on my tongue” (2 Sam 23:2).
In the book of Judges, when Yahweh’s anger flamed out against the Israelites for worshipping false gods, we have the anointing of Othniel, son of Kenaz, and “the spirit of the Lord came upon him and he became a judge in Israel” (Judges 3:9-10).
We have a lovely text in the book of Job: “His breath made the heavens luminous…a whispered echo is all that we hear of him, but who can comprehend the thunder of his power” (Job 26:13).
Jesus proves the Spirit
The life of Jesus, as recorded by the evangelists, gives undeniable proof of the Spirit working through him, as does the Acts of the Apostles: “The many miracles and signs worked through the apostles made a deep impression on everyone” (Acts 2:43).
The unbelieving Israelites questioned the extraordinary powers exercised by the disciples, who were casting out demons, healing the sick, and even raising the dead to life!
The courage and fortitude in the disciples’ orations and deeds spoke of that “power from on high”. Both Peter and Paul bore witness to this God-given power, and so did all the early Christian martyrs.
We will never fully comprehend the shattering event of that Pentecost; yet we can, in some measure, judge it by the fruits produced over the centuries.
Enough to mention the creation of the heavens and the earth out of nothing, absolutely nothing! How the inspired Jewish prophets guided the life of God’s chosen people through victory and crushing defeats!
How the image of the unblemished Lamb becomes the centre of our salvation history. The unbelievable message to a young virgin that God is coming to earth in the flesh, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, Mary, and the power of the most high will overshadow you… and the child will be called the son of God” (Lk 1:35).
Then back to that amazing, awesome power revealed in the episode of Pentecost in the face of fear, cowardice and betrayals.
That astonishing transformation of simple human and fragile humanity. It is easy to lose sight of the Spirit’s power operating in the sufferings of Christ and in his last agonising hours as foretold by the prophet Isaiah.
And then that Easter morning when the Spirit of Life conquered the darkness of sin. And he breathed on them saying: “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them” (John 20:22).
What we often fail to fully understand and deeply appreciate is the Spirit’s action through the priesthood of Jesus and the enormous gift of the blessed Eucharist.
Without the action of the Holy Spirit there could be no daily miracle of the Holy Mass, no human priesthood, and none of the seven sacraments.
Even the Catholic Church would be an empty shell, certainly not the Body of Christ.
The spirit of Pentecost must not be allowed to fade. We Catholics must ever profess ourselves to be the Pentecostal Church.
Fr Ralph de Hahn is a priest of the archdiocese of Cape Town.