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To begin to appreciate the significance of the Feast of Pentecost we need a little history.  The word Pentēcostēs means “fiftieth” and is the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks (in Hebrew Shavu’ot), one of the three most important feasts in their liturgical year.  This feast was called Pentecost or Fiftieth by Greek-speaking Jews because the feast occurred fifty days or seven weeks  after the great feast of Passover. It was originally a farmers’ festival celebrating the end of the spring harvest and thanking the LORD God for a plenteous crop.   But eventually this harvest festival came to be a celebration of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, the Torah which created the covenant between God and God’s people.

The word torah means teaching, law, or instruction, command.  In the Hebrew Bible it has several different nuances.  

  1. 1.   In the Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus torah refers to God’s instruction or teaching.  For example, when the Gospel of St Matthew complains that some scribes and Pharisees,

… make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts (Matthew 23:5),

he is complaining that they are wearing for ostentatious insignia that were meant for a very different purpose:

And it [the insignia] shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead in order that the Teaching (torah) of the LORD may be in your mouth…       

Exodus 13:9

  1. 2.   In the Book of Leviticus, the first half of which deals with holiness in priestly service and the second with community holiness, Torah (teaching, instructions) concerns liturgical regulations.   For example,

This is the law (torah) of the burnt offering, of the grain offering, of the sin offering, of the guilt offering, of the ordination offering, and of the peace offering, which the LORD commanded Moses on Mount Sinai, when he commanded that the Israelites present their offerings to the LORD in the wilderness of Sinai.              Leviticus 7:37-38


Teaching (torah) in Leviticus covers laws about offering sacrifices, about feast days, and laws concerning purity and impurity.  That’s where Henry VIII learned about marrying your sister-in-law.


  1. 3.  The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—are called TORAH in the Jewish Bible for these five books narrate the bedrock on which the faith of God’s holy people is founded. The story stretches from the story Creation to the death of Moses and the imminent entry into the land flowing with milk and honey.

  1. 4.  Especially in the Book of Deuteronomy, while there is instruction on a variety of matters, the Torah is perceived as that mode of living that establishes the identity of the nation and its call to holiness.  Torah is the identity marker and boundary marker of all the people of Israel standing before the LORD their God:


See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’  For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this TORAH that I set before you today.

Deuteronomy 4:5-8  

The point of this excursion into the meaning of torah is to emphasise that all the commandments, laws, regulations, ordinances, and instructions to be found in the Old Testament are there so that the people of Israel fulfil their destiny to be holy and to be a light to the nations.  The person of Jesus comes from this people to the whole world, comes to earth declaring I AM the light of the world.  Through his life, death, and resurrection the whole world is invited to God’s table.  In the Acts of the Apostles, and throughout the other writings of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit brings to life in every human, in every church, in every community, the Torah of God.  The fundamental Teaching that God gives to the world is this:

I will take you to be my people,

and I will be your God,

and you shall know

that I am the LORD your God  

Exodus 6:7

And all prayer is this:

Teach me to do your will,

for you are my God!

Let your good Spirit lead me

on level ground.

Psalm 143:10

That is what the Jewish feast of Pentecost is about.   The giving of Torah to Moses is the beginning of God’s teaching, God’s catechesis, that all people may become the LORD’S people.  Living Torah is living the way to be human.  The Christian celebration of Pentecost is the feast day that glories in the coming of God’s Spirit of Holiness to lead humanity on to level ground. It is the birth of the churches.  But more fundamentally, as St Paul knew well, it is the blossoming of Israel’s calling, the flowering of Israel’s faith.

Two points of interest:

(i) The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the group of what we may call the Jesus-people-in-waiting is the foundational occurrence in the Acts of the Apostles.  There are 70 references to the “spirit” in Acts, about one fifth of the total in the whole New Testament. The two most prominent persons in Acts are Peter and Paul.  We may be forgiven for thinking that these amazing apostles are the heroes of the story. But the story is not about Peter and Paul. The story is the story of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit is the star.

(ii)  In Hebrew and Greek the word for spirit is used for “wind” and “breath” and “spirit”.  The Spirit of God that hovered over the waters in the creation story (Genesis 1:1-2) is the same Spirit that hovers over the expectant people in the little room.  The God of the storm that descended on Mount Sinai to bind the people of Israel to God’s good care forever is the wind, the breath, the spirit of God that makes a solemn covenant:  I shall be your God and you shall be my people.  

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightenings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people

in the camp trembled.  Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took

their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.  And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain,

and Moses went up…

Exodus 1916-20


On Pentecost Day another creative storm creates a new covenant or rather brings the Sinai covenant to its destiny.  The little room in Jerusalem is the new Mount Sinai of a renewed creation, a renewed covenant, building on the ancient covenant made with Israel, and creating an empowered people who must proclaim anew the wonderful works of God:

“And in the last days it shall be,”

God declares,

“that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit,

and they shall prophesy.”              Acts 2:17-18

Will somebody please notice that it says “your sons and your daughters” and “male and female servants” who together “shall prophesy”?  The Spirit speaks this to the churches.

(iii) Because the Feast of Pentecost in the Jewish tradition celebrates the giving of the creative covenant to Moses on Mount Sinai, the Essenes at Qumran admitted new members to their community.

We should do the same and admit our adult catechumens to full communion on Pentecost Day, not at the Easter Vigil.  Then the whole Easter period can become a renewal for the parish community and we can all pray the prayer:

Teach me to do your will,

for you are my God!

Let your good Spirit lead me

on level ground.

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A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                                 2:1-11

Responsorial Psalm                     Psalm 103 (104):1. 24. 29-31. 34.  R/. cf v.30

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians  

12:3-7. 12-13

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John            20:19-23

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A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                                 2:1-11

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.

This is my worrying bit.  For this is the first sentence you will hear this Pentecost morning when you sit to listen to the readings:

When Pentecost day came round, the apostles had all met in one room …

But this is the translation offered by the English Standard Version (which I am using for the ACTA commentary) printed above:

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.

Notice that “they were all together in one place” has become in the Jerusalem Bible translation in our Lectionary “the apostles had all met in one room”.  But we know who was in that upper room.  The new translation, the Revised New Jerusalem Bible tell us so:

They returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which is near Jerusalem, no more than a Sabbath walk; and when they reached the city they went to the upper room where they were staying; there were Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Jude son of James.  With one heart all these were constantly persevering in prayer,

together  with the women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

So how and why do the “altogether in one room” become “the apostles had all met in one room”?  Were not more than 120 assembled in that place? We are told in Acts 1:15 that the company of persons was in all was about 120.  The impression is given in our Lectionary on this blessed morn is that the Holy Spirit descended only on “the apostles”. When we learn that our bishops are the successors of the apostles, you can see where this is going.  We are led to believe by this erroneous translation that only bishops are the recipients of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we know that the Spirit came to all assembled in that one room and so that assembly of men and women were born into the family of the Holy Spirit.  It’s called a church.

Responsorial Psalm                     Psalm 103 (104): 1. 24. 29-31. 34.  R/. cf v.30

R/.                        Send forth your Spirit, O LORD,

And renew the face of the earth.

Bless the LORD, O my soul!

O LORD my God, you are very great!

O LORD, how manifold are your works!

In wisdom have you made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.   R/.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

when you take away their breath, they die

and return to their dust.

When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,

and you renew the face of the earth.   R/.

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;

may the LORD rejoice in his works,   

May my meditation be pleasing to him,

             for I rejoice in the this LORD.   R/.

The response to the verses of Psalm 103 (104) is a prayer that God’s Holy Spirit renew our world.  The psalm paints a picture of an ideal world and a world bereft of its LORD.  Perhaps not so much an ideal world as a challenge.  When the Spirit of God, that divine breath, is taken away by the sins of the world, we must turn to prayer:  The poet recommends seeking the presence of the LORD and that meant turning toward the Temple.  The Christian turns to the Spirit to guide us to renew in us the life and spirit of Jesus:

When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,

and you renew the face of the earth.

To experience the wonder of this psalm, the beauty of its prayer, the love of God, and God’s creative Spirit, you have to read the whole psalm.  

A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians  

12:3-7. 12-13

Most of the letters in the New Testament were written before the four Gospels.  Which letter was first penned is a matter of dispute. Some scholars are of the opinion that the Letter of James is the earliest piece of Christian writing to see the light of day and to make its way into the New Testament.  Others claim that honour should go to the First Letter to Thessalonian Christians. We know that James the brother of the Lord was executed in Jerusalem in 62 A.D. and that St Paul was beheaded in Rome probably in 64 A.D. What is not in doubt is that the seven authentic letters of Paul were written mostly in the late forties, the fifties, and early sixties. What is not in doubt is that Paul’s first letter to the churches in Corinth was written from Ephesus (on the west coast of modern Turkey) in 53 or 54 A. D.  That Paul was deeply concerned for the house churches he founded in the port of Corinth is clear from the problems he had to contend with.

The letter deals with matters relating to sex within marriage, even the advisability of marrying at all, eating food offered at local temples to idols, rivalries among Christians supposed to be living in peace together, a case of incest, social divisions at the Eucharist, lawsuits, fornication, inappropriate dress, how women should cut their hair, and misunderstandings concerning the resurrection.  The problems may have changed somewhat but the Corinthian Christians seem to me to be much like our average parish. But Paul loved them to bits and First Corinthians is one of our greatest treasures.

The second reading today:

… no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit .

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.                                    1 Corinthians 12:3-7.  12-13

The fact that this reading in editing Paul’s text breaks up his train of thought is lamentable.  The first verse of chapter 12 announces a new line of thought. The last paragraphs of chapter 11 deal with the Lord’s Supper (Paul invented this name for the last supper Jesus had with his disciples).  Chapter 12 deals with the amazing gifts showered by the Spirit on the folk who made up the little house churches peppered around the city of Corinth. But individual gifts must work for the good of the whole community.  We are all watered by the one Spirit and the gifts showered on each one must serve all who gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John            20:19-23

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again,

“Peace be with you.

As the Father has sent me,

even so I am sending you.”

And when he had said this,

he breathed on them and said to them,

“Receive the Holy Spirit.

If you forgive the sins of any,

they are forgiven them;

if you withhold forgiveness from any,

it is withheld.

Again, we ought to notice the movements that characterise the appearances of the Risen Lord.  

First Movement : The sign of peace

The first gift is peace.  What Jesus gives is peace, the depth of the peace emphasised by the repetition of the greeting: Peace be with you.  Notice the precise indication of when this appearance of the Risen Lord occurs:  On the evening of that day, the first day of the week.  Remember when Mary Magdalene came to the tomb:  Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early.   The crowning moment of that early morning appearance was the declaration the Jesus must go to “my Father and your Father”. In the going back to the Father is embedded the promise of the Spirit:  

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.                         John 16:13-14

Now in the evening of that day he returns with the gift that he promised.  The gift of the Spirit is the breath of life. This is the breath that brings Jesus to life in every disciple, the gift that brings life to every little church, the Spirit that gives life to the whole Servant Church.  As we have seen, the word for “spirit” in Hebrew and Greek also means “breath” and “wind”. The second creation story told in Genesis 2 tells that

… the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.                                                    Genesis 2:7

It is that story that points to what is happening in the story told in today’s Gospel reading.  As God breathed life into the man and woman, so now Jesus breathes the life of the Holy Spirit into the frightened disciples gathered for fear behind locked doors.   A great wonder occurs. Just as the Father sent Jesus into the world to be the Saviour of the world, (John 4:42) so Jesus sends these frightened disciples to carry the message to the world.  They are to be the Jesus sign in the world. This is what God gave to the world in his only Son:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3:16-17

Second Movement : The sign of the Cross

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.

This is the sign at the heart of this reading.  These wounds reveal all that is to be said about the death of Jesus.  They stand for all that Christians will come to know through the centuries as they meditate on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  They stand for every prayer made in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These are the Sorrowful Mysteries that make Joyful Mysteries and Glorious Mysteries possible.  And not just possible but real in our lives. These are the signs that transform Doubting Thomas into a pillar of faith: My Lord and My God (John 20:28).

Third Movement : The sign of mercy

Then the disciples were glad

when they saw the Lord.

The disciples were locked in fear in that little room.   The fear is turned into gladness and the gladness into vocation.  They are given the Spirit in order to be sent. They are sent not to coerce, not to threaten, not to instill fear. Their commission is awesome:

As the Father has sent me,

even so I am sending you.

Everything that God intended his Son to be in our world, the disciples of Jesus are intended to be.  No wonder disciples need to have breathed into them the breath of the Jesus life. No wonder the Spirit must enliven those who are sent.  For they must live and be the life of Jesus on this earth.

Strangely, the Gospel of John, up to this point, never speaks of the forgiveness of sins (though sin and forgiveness of sin is frequently mentioned in the First letter of John).   Of course we learned in 1:29 in John’s Gospel that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. Notice it is the sin of the world, not the sins of the world.  Think about it.

There is endless discussion on what the saying about “forgiving and retaining” might mean.  Breathing on the disciples who thereby receive the Holy Spirit, the disciples are empowered to forgive or to withhold forgiveness of sin.  Is this power given to all who at baptism receive the Holy Spirit? Is the giving or withholding of forgiveness an authority given to a few specially empowered disciples?  But there are no such people in John’s Gospel. We might do well to be content with the attitude of Jesus toward sinners. We learn in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. The angel says to Joseph:

                             You shall call his name Jesus,

for he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew 1:21

Joseph O’Hanlon

13th May, 2017.