Saint Augustine says the fifty days of Easter parallels the tradition of a fifty day interval between the Passover in Egypt the day when the Jews received the Law at Sinai. The reception of the Law by the Israelites is still commemorated annually with the celebration of Shavuot, which was first prescribed in Leviticus 23:15-17. Hellenistic Jews call Shavuot Pentecost.
For Christians, Pentecost is often called “the birthday of the Church,” since the eleven Apostles and the rest of the Church were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4) on that day. As a result of their baptism in Spirit, they were incorporated as a Church with the purpose of proclaiming the Good News. Pentecost completes the liturgical cycle that began fifty days prior on Easter Sunday; its name derives from the Greek phrase Πεντηκοστή ἡμέρα (pentekoste hemera), which means fiftieth day.
The Law Inscribed in our Hearts
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “the relation of the Jewish to the Christian Pentecost with its pouring out of the spirit as an analogy to the giving the Law in seventy languages is obvious.” Few exegetes have given much thought to this parallel. But if you are an astute reader of Scripture, then the lightbulb in your head should be blinking right now. What about this symmetry between the law and the Spirit. Do we not hear the same thing in Paul?
Jeremiah 31:33 tells us that God will make a new covenant with his chosen people, in which He will “write the law upon our hearts.” The book of Hebrews says Jeremiah’s covenant is made manifest in Christ (c.f. Hebrews 8:10). Saint Paul in II Corinthians 3:2, says:
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
So what of the letter “written on our hearts with the Spirit?” Is this the gift the disciples received at Pentecost? Scripture teaches that Jesus fulfilled the Law (Mk 1:14, Mt 5:17, LG 5). But the gift given to believers through the work of the Spirit comes after Christ fulfills his own mission. Consider John 7:39:
He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
As for the Israelites, Pentecost (Shavuot) recalls the time that the Jews received the Law from God “written on tables of stone” (Ex 24:12). For Christians, Pentecost inaugurates the time from which we are capable of receiving the gift of the Spirit, which is the law of Christ inscribed in our heart.
An Ecclesiological Statement & A Trinitarian Work
Irenaeus, one of the early Patristics, understood the close relationship between the work of the Spirit and the Church: “Where the Church is, there also is God’s Spirit; where God’s Spirit is, there is the Church and every grace; and the Spirit is the truth; to distance oneself from the Church is to reject the Spirit…”.
Pentecost is very much an ecclesiological event. It is not a random story about the disciples “speaking in tongues.” As Peter states in Acts 2:15, “these men are not drunk.” The Spirit was sent by God among the community, as Jesus had petitioned in the priestly prayer in John 17, and as Jesus had predicted in John 7.
And the sending of the Spirit, and the incorporation of the faithful into the Church, are very much associated with baptism. As I had mentioned in a previous post, the ministry of Jesus begins with his own baptism – a Trinitarian work. By the same token, the ministry of the Christian community (with the eleven apostles explicitly present) begins with baptism in spirit – a Trinitarian work.
Baptism is the external sign that the church and the individual have been transformed, and freed themselves of the bonds of slavery associated with Adam’s sin, and initiated a life in the Spirit: a life in Christ. Baptism, and the sending of the spirit, are also, by definition, a sign that the individual is incorporated into the church of Christ, or more properly, the church that is Christ, or has Christ “as its head” (Eph 1:23; 5:23, LG 7).
I would argue that this idea of the believer receiving the law of Jesus inscribed in her heart is clearly a function of the Pentecost event, and a function of the work of the Spirit in her own person. Additionally, the reception of the law in a person’s heart seems to be associated with a baptism in spirit. Finally, this is the fundmental mission of the church, then. To proclaim the Good News, and pray and work that others too, may receive the Law of Jesus inscribed in their hearts.
John XXIII remarked the following about Pentecost:
The light of the Holy Spirit breaks forth from the first words of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles…. The intense movement of the divine Spirit precedes and accompanies the evangelizers and breaks into the souls of those who listen, while extending the confines of the… Church to the ends of the earth, allowing her to traverse all the centuries of history.