“And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”Ezekiel 36:27
The Feast of Pentecost occurs fifty days after Easter. It celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and the Blessed Mother in the Upper Room in Jerusalem and is often regarded as the birth of the Church. But it was not a new feast. It is deeply rooted in God’s previous covenant with the Israelites at the time of Moses. In order to see the full significance of this glorious day, we need to have an appreciation of how the Christian Pentecost fulfills the prior Jewish Pentecost of the Old Testament.
The Call of Abraham
The people of Israel did not exist before God’s covenant with Abraham. The Old Testament repeatedly reminds the Israelites that they are a new people created by God himself. They owe their existence not to natural biological reproduction of Ishmael from Abram and Hagar but to the miraculous birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, a miracle signified and remembered by Israelites through the practice of circumcision. Throughout history, the Jewish people would be identified as distinct from other nations through circumcision, and their circumcision would remind them that their existence as a people ultimately depended upon God’s act of creation, not their own natural reproductive abilities.
The Tower of Babel and the Advent of Diverse Languages
In the book of Genesis, the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 is God’s response to the Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11. Indeed, Abraham is called by God to go to a land promised to him that is in the opposite direction of the people who travel to the town of Shinar to erect the Tower of Babel.
Genesis tells us that the people involved in the Tower of Babel project say to themselves:
“Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly … build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”Genesis 11:2, 4
This is a very significant sentence. It tells us that these people move to a new land in order to build what we would call today a “utopia.” As I tell my students, the people of Babel wanted to build heaven on earth by the building of earth to heaven in this famous tower. In the ancient world, towers were symbols of power and wealth. They also wanted to make a name for themselves and wanted to build a magnificent city, which in Genesis has dubious connotations given that the first person known to build a city was the murderer Cain (Genesis 4:17).
Another important aspect is their desire not “to be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” In the context of Genesis—which tells us that humans are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the whole earth” (Genesis 1:28)—this is an unnatural desire, out of sync with humanity’s divine mission in creation as God’s image-bearers.
The people of the Tower of Babel wanted to make a name for themselves and set up images that herald their glory rather than go out into the world and bear God’s name and image. God thus punished these people by scattering them through diversifying their languages. And in contrast to their desire to preserve themselves against foreigners, God calls Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:2-3).
The Exodus from Egypt
Several centuries later, when the Israelites found themselves captive to another Tower of Babel project—making bricks for the Egyptians—God miraculously preserved them as he miraculously produced them. As Isaac was conceived in the barren waters of Sarah’s womb, so the Israelites would miraculously endure the Egyptian attempt to extinguish them when they walked out of Egypt on dry land as the waters of the Red Sea were miraculously parted (Exodus 14). The great commemoration of the exodus event was the Feast of Passover, the Feast that is perfected and fulfilled in the Christian Easter, as Christ’s resurrection is a new exodus from sin and death to the promised land of heaven.
But after the Israelites left Egypt, they camped below Mt. Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to speak with God and descended forty days later with the Law. In later times, the giving of the Law to Moses became an important aspect of the celebration of the “Feast of Weeks,” which became known as the “Feast of Pentecost” (Tobit 2:1; 2 Maccabees 12:32).
The Feast of Weeks was a celebration of the “first fruits” of the crop. Recall that after the Israelites left Egypt, they soon began to worry about their food supply. This led them to the idolatrous worship of a fertility god and to lots of complaining and wandering in the wilderness. Through the provision of the miraculous “manna” or “bread from heaven,” God taught them that their food, just like their existence, is ultimately a gift from him.
Thus, the Feast of Weeks as a celebration of the first fruits of the crop was an important feast for the Israelites. It was a reminder that they would have food, and it was a foretaste of the fruits of the Promised Land. The Feast of Weeks was celebrated seven weeks after the Feast of the Passover, hence “Pentecost” meaning “fiftieth day.”
The New Covenant and the Spirit
Roughly a millennia later, after the Kingdom of Israel had been lost through exile and the dispersion of the people of Israel, we see a series of prophecies announcing a future restoration of Israel that will be marked by unprecedented fruitfulness and moral and spiritual renewal. This restoration of Israel will allow her to fulfill her destiny of being a “light” or “blessing” to the nations. The fulcrum of this restoration and revolution of Israel is focused upon the gift of God’s Spirit.
Take, for example, the prophecy in Isaiah 61, a prophecy concerning the Messiah who will restore the Kingdom of David:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good tidings to the afflicted;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;…
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
Instead of your shame you shall have a double portion,
instead of dishonor you shall rejoice in your lot;
therefore in your land you shall possess a double portion;
yours shall be everlasting joy…
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,Isaiah 61:1-2, 4-7, 10-11
my soul shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring forth before all the nations.
We can also see this from the prophet Ezekiel:
But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they will soon come home. For behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown; and I will multiply men upon you, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt; and I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you will know that I am the Lord.…
For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.Ezekiel 36:8-11, 24-27
Throughout the Old Testament, then, there is a growing sense that the fruitfulness of Israel, and the fulfillment of her destiny as a just people bearing God’s blessing to the world, turn on the gift of God’s Spirit.
Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles
When we come to the New Testament and our present-day celebration of Pentecost, it occurs fifty days after the new Passover known as Easter. It celebrates the day on which the Apostles and the Blessed Mother were gathered in the Upper Room in Jerusalem celebrating the Jewish Pentecost, and were given the Holy Spirit.
But there are important parallels between the Christian Pentecost recorded in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pentecost of old. Just as there was a storm on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:16-20) when Moses received the Law, so in the Upper Room “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). And while three thousand Israelites were killed when the Israelites rebelled against the law God gave Moses through the idolatry of the golden calf (Exodus 32:28), Luke records that “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41).
The new Pentecost with the gift of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of the original Pentecost. God gives his Law definitively to his people by giving his Spirit who will write the Law upon their hearts, as Ezekiel prophesied in the quotation above. This connection is recognized by St. Paul when he commands his readers to “walk by the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-14). The Spirit is the one who enables sinful humanity to obey God’s holy Law.
Moreover, just as the original Pentecost celebrated the first fruits, so Paul sees the Holy Spirit as the “first fruits of our redemption” (Romans 8:23). It is the Spirit who causes us to bear moral and spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-25). In this way, the Holy Spirit is the initial down payment or foretaste of the true Promised Land, heaven, who gives us assurance of our salvation and deliverance (Ephesians 1:13-14).
Pentecost and the Tower of Babel
But there is also a connection between Pentecost and the Tower of Babel. When the Spirit descends upon the Upper Room, he enables the apostles to proclaim the gospel in the native languages of those gathered in Jerusalem. This is striking, for everyone gathered would have spoken Greek. Why, if they could have spoken to everyone in Greek, would God have the Spirit proclaim the message in the native dialects and languages of the Jews dispersed throughout the ancient world?
We have to keep in mind that after the destruction of David’s Kingdom, the Jews had been exiled throughout the ancient world and forced to adopt the languages of their conquerors. Yet, they all would have spoken Greek because of another Tower of Babel project, the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. When Alexander conquered Palestine along with other regions, he imposed Hellenization, an assimilation into the Greek culture and language.
It is very significant that in contrast to this forced cultural conformity, the Spirit reinforces cultural and linguistic diversity. The unity that Christians share goes beyond shared culture and language. Rather it is the unity found in communion with God.
The universality of the Church, then, is not based on cultural and linguistic uniformity, but upon a common bond to the Holy Spirit who is known for his characteristic ministry of bringing unity amidst diversity. In the Blessed Trinity, it is the Spirit who is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. And so in history, the Spirit is the bond that unifies the Church spread throughout the world.
It is the Spirit, then, who will enable Abraham’s descendants to be a genuine blessing to all nations. It is the Spirit who will enable them to bear the first fruits of heaven, exemplifying God’s justice, mercy, and love. It is the Spirit who will enable them to show the world a form of unity that is different from the sinful Tower of Babels that the kingdoms of this world try to erect.
Celebrating Reunion with God
When we celebrate Pentecost, we are celebrating far more than just special intimacy with God through the Holy Spirit. We are celebrating the assurance God gives us of heaven and our future salvation. We are celebrating the gift of true justice, for the Spirit is the one who conforms our hearts to the perfect Law of God. We are celebrating our mission as God’s people to venture out among other peoples, not on a mission of political colonization or military conquest, but of spiritual transformation and reunion with God in the Church.
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Dr. James R. A. Merrick is a lecturer in the theology department at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and a theology and Latin teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania. In addition to Ascension, he writes for Exodus 90 and National Catholic Register. Follow Dr. Merrick on Twitter: @JamesRAMerrick.