The feast of Pentecost may not be as popular as Christmas or Easter but it commemorates a watershed event in the life of the Church. Pentecost is the birthday of the Catholic Church. You’re aware that some groups designate themselves as Pentecostal, and claim sole possession of the Spirit. They emphasize baptism of the Spirit—by which they mean—speaking in tongues as trademark. We do not appropriate the Spirit, for Jesus said that “the Spirit breathes wherever He wills” (John 3:8). No one can bottle the Spirit or compel Him to join camps in the scandalous divisions among the followers of Christ. What I mean by saying that Pentecost is the birthday of the catholic Church is: It was on this day, AD 33, that the following of Christ became a “catholic” event (From the Greek katholikos, meaning “universal”). Prior to this day, the followers of Christ were a few “timid” Jewish people gripped by fear and locked up in a room. After the Pentecost event, they went out in the open to pronounce boldly the same cause about which they had feared to speak. How was this possible?
To put it in precise anatomical terms, the days after Jesus’ Resurrection to His Ascension were the days that the Church was conceived and matured in the womb of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words on the morning of the resurrection, which we heard in today’s gospel, invite the apostles to receive the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit was not immediately manifest, for they were still incredulous about Jesus’ appearances and the mission to which He sends them, saying: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Nothing explains their incredulity better than the question they put to Him on the day He ascended into heaven: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus answered by repeating the commission to witness to Him throughout Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. The apostles were still shortsighted, desiring a restoration of an Israelite kingdom that would have them rule as governors, whereas Jesus was speaking about the kingdom of God that is much more expansive—Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
No doubt, they went back utterly disappointed. But the birth pangs had begun. The nine days from Ascension to Pentecost saw the Spirit growing and maturing them. Their water broke the moment the strong wind tore into the room where they were hiding. The fire of tongues which rested on each of them destroyed their fears and unsealed their clogged lips, so they could speak in tongues. None of them, I suppose, understood what tongues or glossolalia meant at that time. They were not jerking and uttering nonsensical words as happens in many Pentecostal bazars. They found a new freedom from fear and went out to speak. They spoke Aramaic. But the people gathered heard them in their own native languages. The Iranians who spoke Parthian heard Aramaic in Parthian; the Egyptians heard Aramaic in Egyptian; and Romans heard Aramaic in Latin, etc. The Holy Spirit was the sole interpreter.
Recall that it was the same God’s Spirit who at Babel caused the confusion in languages when humans turned prideful. Pentecost, therefore, is God’s Spirit undoing the confusion of Babel, so that all might hear and understand the mighty works of God. The word Pentecost which means “fiftieth” was a Jewish harvest feast (Exodus 23:16) commemorating their deliverance from slavery and the giving of the law to Moses. In the new order, this Passover is effected through the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, by which a new people called by God would be delivered from real slavery to sin, and rescued by God’s love. In place of a law written on tablets, the Spirit of God gives us the new law of love. This law will apply to and guide all peoples from different nations who form the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo