Sunday Scripture: Pentecost Sunday (Year C).


Welcome to this, the forty-third of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

I have undertaken this project, regularly posting background information on the readings at Sunday Mass as part of my own prayer life. I have found it helps me to do a little study before I go to Mass about the readings, what the theme of the week is, how it follows on from the previous week's readings and what is being said.

In sharing this, I hope to help you too get more from the Bible and Sunday Scripture readings. Perhaps it might give you confidence in the value and legitimacy of the Bible, or perhaps it might inspire you to pray the Divine Office or investigate the weekly readings for yourself.

I see this as very clearly part of what the Church teaches about the Bible:
This heaven-sent treasure Holy Church considers as the most precious source of doctrine on faith and morals. No wonder herefore that, as she received it intact from the hands of the Apostles, so she kept it with all care, defended it from every false and perverse interpretation and used it diligently as an instrument for securing the eternal salvation of souls, as almost countless documents in every age strikingly bear witness. ~Divino Afflante Spiritu
When fideism said that we should turn away from science and study and rely on the Bible for exactly what it is, in a literal sense, the Church said "no", we have nothing to fear from a proper understanding of Scripture and thus we were encouraged to delve ever deeper into the treasure chest of sacred Scripture to see what riches we could find there.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

Jean II Restout : Pentecôte, 1732
The Holy Spirit Who Brings New Life.

Collect:
O God who by the mystery of today's great feast sanctify your whole Church in every people and nation, pour out, we pray, the gifts of the Holy Spirit across the face of the earth and, with the divine grace that was at work when the Gospel was first proclaimed, fill now once more the hearts of believers.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

This week's readings are:
  • First Reading: Acts of the Apostles 2: 1-11.
  • Psalm 103: 1-2, 24, 27-30, 35; Response: cf. v. 30. 
  • Second Reading: Romans 8: 22-27.
  • Gospel: John 7:37.
First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Acts of the Apostles I have written a detailed exposition of Acts which you can read here.

This week: The coming of the Spirit— Luke depicts the coming of the Spirit upon the Apostles and the beginning of their world mission vividly by means of allusions which are clear in the light of late Jewish literature. Pentecost (which literally means the fiftieth day) was, at least in the second century, the feast of the giving of the Law on Sinai. It is the name used by the Greek-speaking Jews for the harvest feast called in Hebrew hag sabu’ot, which translates as the “feast of weeks” (that is seven weeks plus one day). In Leviticus 23:15-21 the feast is reckoned by counting seven weeks from the beginning of the grain harvest; it is a day of sabbatical observance.

Thus this feast is related to an agrarian society, and has a correlation to the feast mentioned in Numbers 28:26:

On the day of the first fruits, when you offer a grain offering of new grain to the LORD at your festival of weeks you shall have a holy convocation.
Later, Judaism gave the feast a historical motif, marking it as the anniversary of the giving of the Law at Sinai. This reckoning may have originated in sectarian Judaism; c.f. Jub 1:1 with 6:17. It is first attested to in rabbinical Judaism by Jose ben Halafta, circa A.D. 150.

So fifty days after Passover, when massot, “unleavened loaves” had been eaten, the Jews offered the wheat of unleavened bread to the Lord. On it the Jews celebrated the gifts of the grain harvest, thanking God for the blessings so received. —Fitzmyer, J., The Acts of the Apostles (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 233.
The Dead Sea Scrolls appear to demonstrate that there were three Pentecostal feasts celebrated.
Fifty days from the morrow of the Sabbath of the Passover octave occurred the Pentecost of New Grain; fifty days from the morrow of the Pentecost of New Grain, the Pentecost of New Wine; and fifty days from the morrow of the Pentecost of New Wine, the Pentecost of New Oil. —Ibid p. 235.
The festival is mentioned more frequently in the New Testament than in the Old, this is because of its importance as the birthday of the universal Church. For Christians, Pentecost celebrates the new law of the Spirit (Rom 8:2), written on the hearts of believers (Jer 31:31—34; 2 Cor 3:4—6), which surpasses the Law of Moses, inscribed on stone tablets (Ex 31:18).


According to Philo, Decal. 33, at the giving of the Law God sent a mighty invisible sound (the same word is used in Acts 2:2) which turned to fire and gave forth a voice proclaiming the Law. Thus the day was (Dt 4:10; 9:10) known as the Day of the Assembly (Gk: ecclesia, in Christian terminology the Church), since on this day it was formally constituted . Because of the spread to all nations the Assembly or Church is shown to be essentially missionary in its very foundation. According to another tradition (SB 3, 48—49) this voice split into seventy tongues so as to be understood by all the nations of the earth (seventy in Jewish lore). The nations listed in Acts 2:9-11 also represent all nations, for the list is founded on a list of countries corresponding to all the signs of the zodiac, so 'every nation under heaven'. (See Weinstock, S., The Geographical Catalogue in Acts 2, JRS 38 (1948)).


The most distinctive feature of Lucan architecture is the parallels between the Gospel—the story of Jesus—and the story of the apostolic church. Thus any investigation into the structure of the Pentecost narrative must consider the Gospel—Acts pattern as fundamental.

The parallel is as follows:

Luke                  Acts
3:21 The Spirit descends after Jesus’ prayer 2:1-13 The Spirit fills the disciples after their 
and in a physical form.                    prayers with accompanying physical
                        manifestations.

There is also a clear narrative structure in the pericope Acts 2:1-13:

Exposition 2:1 all together on Pentecost
Inciting moment 2:2 καὶ ἐγένετο
Complication 2:3 tongues like fire
Climax 2:4 filled, speak different languages
Turning point 2:6 the crowd gathered
Falling action 2:7 crowd’s discussion
Denouncement 2:11 great things of God
Last Delay 2:13 some mock
Resolution 2:13ff Peter’s Speech

Only Luke mentions that the Holy Spirit was given on Pentecost, using the language of analogy—a sound “as of” or “like that of” wind—indicates some supernatural occurrence. The symbolism is pre-figured in the Old Testament theophanies (2 Sam 22:6; Job 37:10; Ezek 13:13), wind is a sign of God’s presence as Spirit. The second symbol, also used analogically, is similarly reminiscent of  Old Testament theophanies (as we shall see below), although the primary background is probably John the Baptist’s association of the Spirit with fire as a means of cleansing and judgement (Lk 3:16). Of course, this Gospel parallel fits nicely into the Gospel—Acts pattern postulated by Talbert (q.v. above).
Talbert’s pattern is again demonstrated in the parallel between Acts 2:4 and 4:31b, they were all filled by the Holy Spirit, an inward, invisible reality whose presence was demonstrated by the effects wrought on the disciples (Duckworth and Rees consider that this refers to the whole one hundred and twenty and not merely the Twelve). Luke uses the verb “fill”—”they were all filled with the Holy Spirit”—to describe the experience, a verb used when people are inspired to make important utterances.

When we attempt to apply Cotter’s chiasmic pattern to the Pentecost narrative, we find a pattern which has the potential to prove very important to our investigation:

A    1  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place,  2  and suddenly a   sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting.  3  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributing and resting on each one of them.
B    4  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the                       Spirit gave them utterance.
C    5  Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem, Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven.  6  And at this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
D    7  And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
E    8  “And how is it that we each hear, each of us in our own native language to which we were born?
F    9  “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10  Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of  Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11  Cretans and Arabs
E’   we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works                                of God.”
D’   12  And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this                    mean?”  13 But others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.”
C’   14  But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of              Judea, and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.  15  “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day;
B’   16  but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:  17  ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, ‘that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; 18  yes and on my men servants and my maid servants in those days I will pour out my spirit; and they shall prophesy.
A’   19  And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke; 20  the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the day of the LORD comes the great and manifest day. 21  and it shall be that who ever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.’
It is clear that the text centres on the element of language: “in our own language we hear”. This is the conclusion reached by the presbyterian scholar Robert Reid who also notes the link with Jesus’ Baptism. Reid does not however, link the chiasmic structure of the Pentecost narrative to the Babel story. Paul Gaechter’s work on the formal patterns makes the inference that chiasmus (as well as other balanced patterns in the narrative structure) point to a Semitic setting for the material. This could lead to a conclusion, given who Luke was writing for as well as his own background, that the author of Acts was alluding to the Babel story. Talbert, however, criticises Gaechter’s work in that it considers these patterns in isolation from the document’s milieu. Talbert concludes (specifically in regard to the chiastic patterns of the journeys of Jesus and Paul) that chiasm is merely a literary pattern employed by Luke, concerned primarily with the aesthetic of the work and demonstrating no specific pastoral concern. I may have gone too far with the textual analysis, so I'm going to leave it there, fascinating as I find it! If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment.


Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

This week: The psalm is an epic of creation—a true hymn in fairly regular metre and stanzaic construction. Vs 30, which is the response here is often adapted for liturgies of the Holy Spirit.

Romans is a letter whose theological wealth touches most of the theological themes of the New Testament: Election, Faith, Law, Life, Righteousness, Salvation, Sin, and Spirit. It is in Romans that Paul sets out, more explicitly than in any other epistle, the meaning of Christian Salvation, the powerlessness of man and the fullness of the redeeming work of God.
Modern opinion is that Paul wrote Romans during the final months of his third missionary tour (Acts 18:23—21:16), probably during the winter of late AD 57 or early 58.

The body of Romans divides neatly into three parts:
  • Salvation in Christ (1:16-8:39)
  • Restoration of Israel (9:1-11:39)
  • Christian Living & Epilogue (12:1-16:23)

Rome clearly has a glowing reputation of faith by the time Paul writes to the community there: "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world." (1:8) and I have to say that this is one of my favourite things about this Epistle! Paul is writing in order to introduce himself to the community there in preparation for his planned visit (1:11-13). This is unusual in itself as Paul didn't always do this. Paul hoped to establish the Roman Church as his missionary base for a new phase of evangelisation, having completed his work in the eastern Mediterranean. Paul's plan was to now turn his gaze towards Spain in the west (15:23-24) and to this end, he attempts to enlist the support of the Roman Church in carrying out his apostolic plan.

This week: If Christ delivers us from death and sin and brings life, how is that life to be lived, especially since we are still flesh and the flesh is not submissive to God's law? In chapter eight of Romans Paul answers that we are to live, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit of God who raised Christ from the dead. "If you live according to the flesh, you are going to die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (8:13). Thus we become children of God (able to cry "Abba, Father," even as Jesus had), heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, with the promise that now if we suffer with Him, we shall also be glorified with Him (8:14-17). The Jews had understood that they were God's children (Exodus 4:22; Isaiah 1:2), but now the relationship had been deepened through the Spirit of Him who was uniquely God's Son.

The Gospel According to St. John: I have written a detailed exposition on the Gospel of St. John which you can read here.

This week: The Gospel starts this week on Easter Sunday night in a place where the doors are locked for fear of "the Jews." It involves members of the Twelve (v. 24) and resembles a culminating scene in the Synoptics (Matt 28:16-20; Luke 24:33-49; Mark 16:14-20) where Jesus appears to the Eleven (Twelve minus Judas) and send them forth on a mission. After extending peace in an echo of 14:27 and 16:33, Jesus gives the disciples a mission that continues His own. In a symbolic action evocation of God's creative breath that gave life to the first human being (Gen 2:7) and of the demand to be begotten of water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5-8), Jesus breathes on them and gives them a Holy Spirit with power over sin, continuing His own power over sin.

Drawing them all together...

For Pentecost, we begin to think about the Holy Spirit, God's mighty power at work in the universe, present and active from the very beginning. The Psalm tells us of God's power in His Spirit at creation: we are led to marvel at the wonder and intricacy of the world around us in all its manifold and mysterious beauty. The Spirit has always been active in God's plan of salvation in history.

God did and does intervene in history, as He has initiated and upholds creation—even if we feel caught up in the seeming futility and disappointment of life, as we and creation "groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free" (Rom 8:23). Paul sees this as a great preparation in which suffering itself will be transformed into glory. We are saved by the redeeming blood of Jesus, so we have the expectation of future glory. The Spirit is present in our very hearts, speaking through our very weakness about the power of hope. This hope is focused on Jesus who identifies Himself with true life—water and breath. He is our source of true life and hope: He gives the Spirit in a special way, as a channel of His being, to continue His life on earth in the heart of every believer.

Excursus: Mary's Presence in the Upper Room at Pentecost —Pope John Paul II

"All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren" (Acts 1:14). 
In these simple words the author of Acts records the presence of Christ's mother in the upper room during the days of preparation for Pentecost.

In the previous reflection we entered the upper room and saw that the apostles, in obedience to Jesus' command prior to his departure to the Father, were assembled and "with one accord devoted themselves" to prayer. They were not alone, for other disciples, both men and women, were present with them. Among these persons pertaining to the original Jerusalem community, St. Luke, the author of Acts, also names Mary, Christ's mother. He names her among those present without adding anything special in her regard. We know, however, that Luke in his Gospel wrote at length about Mary's divine and virginal motherhood, on the basis of the information obtained by him in the Christian communities for a precise methodological motive (cf. Lk 1:1 ff.: Acts 1:1 ff.). This information was traced back at least indirectly to the earliest source of all data about Mary, namely, the mother of Jesus herself. Consequently, in Luke's twofold narrative, just as the coming into the world of God's Son is set in close relationship with the person of Mary, so now the birth of the Church is likewise linked with her. The simple statement that she was present in the upper room at Pentecost is sufficient to indicate to us the great importance attributed by Luke to this detail.

The Acts of the Apostles reveals Mary as one of those taking part in the preparation for Pentecost as a member of the first community of the Church which was coming into being. On the basis of Luke's Gospel and of other New Testament texts a Christian tradition on Mary's presence in the Church was formed, which the Second Vatican Council summed up by hailing her as a preeminent and wholly unique member of the Church (cf. LG 53), inasmuch as she is the mother of Christ, the Man-God, and therefore the mother of God. The Council Fathers recalled in the introductory message the words of the Acts of the Apostles which we have reread. It was as though they wished to emphasize that just as Mary was present at the beginning of the Church, so likewise they desired her presence in the assembly of the apostles' successors gathered together in the second half of the twentieth century in continuity with the community of the upper room. In coming together for the work of the Council, the Fathers also wished "to devote themselves with one accord to prayer with Mary the mother of Jesus" (cf. Acts 1:14).

At the annunciation Mary had experienced the descent of the Holy Spirit. The angel Gabriel had said to her: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called the Son of God" (Lk 1:35). Through the Spirit's coming down upon her, Mary was associated in a unique way with the mystery of Christ. In the encyclical Redemptoris Mater I wrote: "In the mystery of Christ she is present even 'before the creation of the world' (cf. Eph 1:4), as the one whom the Father 'has chosen' from eternity as mother of his Son in the Incarnation. And what is more, together with the Father, the Son has chosen her, entrusting her eternally to the Spirit of holiness" (RM 8).

In the upper room in Jerusalem, as the Paschal Mystery of Christ on earth reached its fulfillment, Mary together with the other disciples prepared for a new coming of the Holy Spirit which would mark the birth of the Church. It is true that she was already a "temple of the Holy Spirit" (LG 53) by her fullness of grace and by her divine motherhood. But she took part in the prayers for the Spirit's coming so that through his power there should burst out in the apostolic community the impulse toward the mission which Jesus Christ, on coming into the world, had received from the Father (cf. Jn 5:36), and on returning to the Father, had transmitted to the Church (cf. Jn 17:18). From the very beginning Mary was united to the Church as a disciple of her Son and as the most outstanding image of the Church in her faith and charity (cf. LG 53).

The Second Vatican Council emphasized this in the Constitution on the Church where we read: "By reason of the gift and role of divine maternity, by which she is united with her Son, the Redeemer, and with his singular graces and functions, the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united with the Church. As St. Ambrose taught, the mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ. For in the mystery of the Church...the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion.... By her belief and obedience, not knowing man but overshadowed by the Holy Spirit she brought forth on earth the very Son of the Father" (LG 63).

Mary's prayer in the upper room in preparation for Pentecost has a special significance, precisely because of the bond with the Holy Spirit established at the moment of the mystery of the Incarnation. Now this bond comes up again, enhanced with a new reference point.

In saying that Mary "stands out" in the order of faith, the Council seems to hark back to Elizabeth's greeting to her cousin, the Virgin of Nazareth after the annunciation: "Blessed is she who believed" (Lk 1:45). The evangelist writes that "Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit" (Lk 1:41) in replying to Mary's greeting and uttering those words. Moreover, according to the same Luke, "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit" in the upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4). Therefore she also who "was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit" (cf. Mt 1:18) received at Pentecost a new fullness of the Holy Spirit. From that day onward her pilgrimage of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ was linked with the Church's own pilgrim journey.

The apostolic community needed her presence and that devotedness to prayer together with her, the mother of the Lord. It may be said that in that prayer with Mary, one perceives her special mediation deriving from the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As his mystical spouse, Mary implores his coming upon the Church born from the pierced side of Christ on the cross, and now about to be revealed to the world.

As can be seen, Luke's brief mention in Acts of the presence of Mary among the apostles and all those who "devoted themselves to prayer" in preparation for Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, has a very rich content.

In the Constitution Lumen Gentium the Second Vatican Council expressed this richness of content. According to this important conciliar text, she who in the midst of the disciples in the upper room devoted herself to prayer, is the mother of the Son, predestined by God to be "the first-born among many brethren" (cf. Rom 8:29). The Council however adds that she herself cooperated "in the regeneration and formation" of these "brethren" of Christ, with her motherly love. The Church in her turn—from the day of Pentecost—"by her preaching brings forth to a new and immortal life the sons who are born to her in baptism, who are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God" (LG 64). The Church, therefore, by becoming herself a mother in this way, looks to the mother of Christ as her model. The Church's looking to Mary began in the upper room.



Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Cotter, D., Genesis, Collegville: Liturgical Press, 2003.Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Hahn, S., The Lamb's Supper (London: DLT, 1999).
Harrington, W. J., John: Spiritual Theologian (Dublin: The Columbia Press, 2007).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kereszty, R., O. Cist., Jesus Christ—Fundamentals of Christology (New York: Alba, 2010).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 8/ May 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).
Talbert, C.H., Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, Montana: SBLMS, 1974.
Chiasm adapted by the author from Cotter, op. Cit. Bible translation used: RSV Second Catholic Edition from Ignatius Catholic Study Bible.

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