There is more in Luke’s story of Pentecost that we have yet to touch on. It’s something that gives us the key to understanding almost everything in the New Testament.
Luke begins his story by saying, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled . . .” (Acts 2:1). This is an important detail: Pentecost existed before Pentecost! Even before the Holy Spirit had descended on the apostles, there was a Jewish feast of Pentecost, and “devout Jews” from many nations gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate it (2:5).
Just as we must know something about the Old Testament Passover in order to understand Easter—the new Passover—as its fulfillment, we must know something about the Jewish feast of Pentecost in order to understand the meaning of the new Pentecost. Initially, Pentecost was the feast of the “firstfruits”—an agricultural festival where the priest offered God a first harvest from the crops. It was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover and recalled the beginning of the exodus from Egypt.
Later on, during the time of Jesus, Pentecost was no longer connected with the natural cycle of seasons; it was a historical feast that commemorated the giving of the commandments, or “the Law,” to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was on the basis of this Law that God established a covenant with his people and made of them a holy nation, a royal priesthood.
The Finger of God. In Acts 2, Luke brings out this link between the ancient Pentecost and the new Christian Pentecost by insisting on details like fire and wind—details that remind us of God’s appearance on Mount Sinai. St. Augustine once said that on Mount Sinai, fifty days after the old Passover in Egypt, the finger of God wrote the law on tablets of stone. Now, “fifty days after the immolation of the true love of God”—that is, the crucifixion—“the finger of God, the Holy Spirit, writes the law again. Only this time it is written not on tablets of stone, but on the hearts of people.”
The new Pentecost is the moment when Ezekiel’s prophecy is fulfilled: “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. . . . I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them” (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).
The Holy Spirit is not an optional extra that gets added to our salvation. He is our salvation! He is the new law, the very principle of the new covenant. As Paul explained, the old Law could not give life because people didn’t have the strength and resources to live it out. But now, in this new law, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:1-2). Isn’t that beautiful? There is no condemnation!
By his death, Jesus set us free and gave us the gift of the Spirit. The old Law could only tell people what to do, but the law of the Spirit does this and so much more. This is the difference between the ancient Law—or any written law—and the living person of the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas—and St. Augustine before him—went so far as to say that even the precepts of the gospel would be “the letter that kills,” if it were not for the Spirit, who enables us to put these precepts into practice. This is why Jesus told the apostles that he had to leave them (John 16:7). He knew that only his death could prepare for the coming of the Spirit that would enable them to follow his teaching.
Receiving God’s Love, Giving It Away. So Pentecost is essential. It’s a question of life or death for the Church. I remember hearing what the coach of the Liverpool soccer team once told his players before a crucial game: “This match isn’t a matter of life and death for us. It’s much more!” He was exaggerating, of course, but it’s no exaggeration when we talk about Pentecost. So how can we prepare for this experience? How can we allow God to repeat in our lives what he did that day for the apostles? I’ll tell you a secret: it has to do with God’s love.
First, we must understand that the love of God has two faces. It’s the love with which God loves us, and it is also the new capacity that comes with God’s love, a new capacity enabling us to love God and one another. These two faces of love are linked together, like two doors that open and close at the same time.
In baptism, we have already received this gift of love, the theological virtue of charity. So we should be able to put it into practice. As we do, we open the way for the energy of God’s love to be revitalized in us. In other words, if you want to experience the love of God, begin by loving people! Start with your husband, your wife, your children, and your neighbor. And especially, love your enemies—those people you have so much trouble getting along with—and in your heart, try to reconcile with them. God will respond by giving you his love in a new measure.
A friend of mine, Fr. George Montague, gives this analogy, which I find very appropriate here. It concerns the difference between the two seas into which the river Jordan flows. First, there is the Sea of Galilee, which is a very rich body of water teeming with life. But then the Jordan flows on and forms the Dead Sea, which really is dead. It contains no life whatsoever. What makes the difference? The Sea of Galilee receives the waters of the Jordan but lets them go away to water the entire valley. The Dead Sea, on the other hand, receives the Jordan’s waters but keeps them for itself because it has no outlets.
So do you want to be the Sea of Galilee or the Dead Sea? May we all let the waters of God’s love flow! May we give it away so that we can receive more in return.
Open yourself to the Spirit of love, and you will experience the transforming power and grace of a new Pentecost.