8 Things to Know and Share About Pentecost

by Jimmy Akin

Where did the feast of Pentecost come from? What happened on it? And what does it mean for us today? Here are 8 things to know and share…

Gebhard Kugel (1863-1939), “Pentecost” (photo: Register Files)

The original day of Pentecost saw dramatic events that are important to the life of the Church.

But where did the feast of Pentecost come from?

How can we understand what happened on it?

And what does it mean for us today?

Here are 8 things to know and share about it…

1. What does the name “Pentecost” mean?

It comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth” (pentecoste). The reason is that Pentecost is the fiftieth day (Greek, pentecoste hemera) after Easter Sunday (on the Christian calendar).

This name came into use in the late Old Testament period and was inherited by the authors of the New Testament.

2. What else is this feast known as?

In the Old Testament, it is referred to by several names:

  • The feast of weeks
  • The feast of harvest
  • The day of first-fruits

Today in Jewish circles it is known as Shavu`ot (Hebrew, “weeks”).

It goes by various names in different languages.

In England (and English), it has also been known as “Whitsunday” (White Sunday). This name is presumably derived from the white baptismal garments of those recently baptized.

3. What kind of feast was Pentecost in the Old Testament?

It was a harvest festival, signifying the end of the grain harvest. Deuteronomy 16 states:

You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you first put the sickle to the standing grain.

Then you shall keep the feast of weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 16:9-11a].

4. What does Pentecost represent in the New Testament?

It represents the fulfillment of Christ’s promise from the end of Luke’s Gospel:

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:46-49].

This “clothing with power” comes with the bestowal of the Holy Spirit upon the Church.

5. How is the Holy Spirit symbolized in the events of the day of Pentecost?

Acts 2 records:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting 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.

This contains two notable symbols of the Holy Spirit and his activity: the elements of wind and fire.

Wind is a basic symbol of the Holy Spirit, as the Greek word for “Spirit” (Pneuma) also means “wind” and “breath.”

Although the term used for “wind” in this passage is pnoe (a term related to pneuma), the reader is meant to understand the connection between the mighty wind and the Holy Spirit.

Concerning the symbol of fire, the Catechism notes:

While water signifies birth and the fruitfulness of life given in the Holy Spirit, fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions.

The prayer of the prophet Elijah, who “arose like fire” and whose “word burned like a torch,” brought down fire from heaven on the sacrifice on Mount Carmel.

This event was a “figure” of the fire of the Holy Spirit, who transforms what he touches. John the Baptist, who goes “before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah,” proclaims Christ as the one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Jesus will say of the Spirit: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!”

In the form of tongues “as of fire,” the Holy Spirit rests on the disciples on the morning of Pentecost and fills them with himself. The spiritual tradition has retained this symbolism of fire as one of the most expressive images of the Holy Spirit’s actions. “Do not quench the Spirit” [CCC 696].

6. Is there a connection between the “tongues” of fire and the speaking in other “tongues” in this passage?

Yes. In both cases, the Greek word for “tongues” is the same (glossai), and the reader is meant to understand the connection.

The word “tongue” is used to signify both an individual flame and an individual language.

The “tongues as of fire” (i.e., individual flames) are distributed to and rest on the disciples, thus empowering them to miraculously speak in “other tongues” (i.e., languages).

This is a result of the action of the Holy Spirit, signified by fire.

7. Who is the Holy Spirit?

Here is a video I made on that subject…

8. What does the feast of Pentecost mean to us?

As one of the most important solemnities on the Church’s calendar, it has a rich depth of meaning, but here is how Pope Benedict summarized it in 2012:

This Solemnity makes us remember and relive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and the other disciples gathered in prayer with the Virgin Mary in the Upper Room (cf. Acts 2:1-11). Jesus, risen and ascended into Heaven, sent his Spirit to the Church so that every Christian might participate in his own divine life and become his valid witness in the world. The Holy Spirit, breaking into history, defeats aridity, opens hearts to hope, stimulates and fosters in us an interior maturity in our relationship with God and with our neighbour.

Jimmy Akin  – Jimmy was born in Texas and grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”


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