This coming Sunday we remember the Pentecost event in the Book of Acts. On that day, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit made itself visibly and audibly present to the disciples of the church, men and women alike. Pentecost is sometimes known as the “birthday of the church” – an event that commemorates the coming, and subsequently the permanent presence of the Holy Spirit within the Christian community. Today, the celebration of Pentecost reminds us that the Holy Spirit is actively at work in the church, always present in the celebration of the sacraments, and actively at work among each and every member of the faith.
Saint Augustine suggested centuries ago that the fifty days of Easter parallel the midrash or Jewish tradition of a fifty day interval between the first Passover, recounted in the Book of Exodus 12, and the day when the Jews received the Law at Sinai (Exodus 31). The reception of the Law by the Israelites is commemorated annually with the celebration of Shavuot, which was first prescribed in Leviticus 23:15-17. Hellenistic Jews call Shavuot… Pentecost. The term is an abbreviation of the phrase, ἡμέραν τῆς πεντηκοστή, which means “fifty days.”
Pentecost (Shavuot) in the Old Testament
The feast of Shavuot, celebrated fifty days after the second day of Passover, is not a major holiday, however it is prescribed in the Torah. Shavuot is mentioned at least four times in the Torah, in Exodus 34:22, Exodus 23:16, Deuteronomy 16:10 and Numbers 28:26. Shavuot means “weeks” in Hebrew, symbolizing the seven week cycle of the celebration.
In Exodus 34, the people of Israel are told, immediately after receiving the Torah, that you shall keep the feast of weeks, with the first fruits of the wheat harvest. In Numbers 28, it is ordained that on the day of first fruits, on your feast of Weeks, when you present to the Lord an offering of new grain, you will declare a holy day.
What is most impressive about the Feast of Weeks – (Shavuot) – is that each year, the people of Israel give thanks and commemorate receiving the law from God. One of the annual customs is to go to the synagogue to hear the reading of the ten commandments – the law given by God. Jewish tradition also proposes that King David passed on the feast of Shavuot. It is therefore customary to read from the Book of Ruth, who was an ancestor of David’s. A further tradition is to stay up all night and study the Torah.
Pentecost in the Book of Acts
Whether by coincidence or not, the Book of Acts tells us that God made himself known to the disciples on the very day (Acts 2:1) when the people of Jerusalem were celebrating the feast of Shavuot, or “pentekostes” in Greek. It was a Sunday morning (Acts 2:15) seven weeks after the resurrection of Jesus, and the Christians of Jerusalem were engaged in their own worship that morning. Tongues of fire came down upon the disciples, who came from the distant corners of the known world. The disciples gathered came from as far as Libya in the east, and from what is now Iran in the west. Yet they also heard each other in their own native tongue. The descent of the Holy Spirit, was, in some sense, a reversal of the Story of Babel recounted in Genesis.
The event recounted in Acts tells us that the church and the people of God are unified through the work of the Spirit. Paul says is much in Ephesians 4:4-6,
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The Spirit Blows Where it Wills
The ability of the disciples to hear each other in their own native tongue becomes a forerunner to gifts of the spirit described in Paul’s letters. In I Corinthians 12, Paul tells us that there are nine gifts of the Spirit. Some seem unsurprising – wisdom, knowledge and faith. Other gifts may seem foreign to the contemporary Christian. These gifts include the ability to speak in tongues, and the ability to interpret those who speak in tongues. Whether mundane or not, these gifts are works of God, signs of the presence of Jesus Christ, and outward manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit. In John 3:8, Jesus says
The wind [spirit] blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
I have learned over the years not to question Sacred Scripture or the manner in which God operates. I may not have direct knowledge of some of these things, but the Holy Spirit works as it sees fit, and sometimes rather dramatically, simply to remind us that God is present even in those times when we least expect it.
The Origin of Confirmation and Holy Orders
After the Pentecost event, we hear that the Apostles lay hands on both presbyters (Acts 14:23), and anyone who has been baptized (Acts 8:14-19). Known as “xeirotonia” in the Greek Orthodox church, or “epetithesan tas xeiras” ἐπετίθεσαν τὰς χεῖρας in the biblical Greek, “the laying on of hands” becomes the external sign of the work of the Holy Spirit – a sort of re-enactment of the Pentecost event, and an acknowledgement that the Spirit does not make itself manifest in the Church or the community of believers only once.
Confirmation and Holy Orders are administered by a “laying on of hands,” and they are both works of God – an external or formal commissioning that suggests that an individual has received both a grace and the authority to act in some manner. Confirmation and Holy Orders are similar in that they are both administered by a laying on of hands. Yet at the same, time, they represent different mandates for different members of the faithful.
Confirmation, extended to any and all baptized, is a completion of the sacrament of initiation. It’s intention might seem somewhat abstract, in comparison to the sacraments such as the reception of the Eucharist, or the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Yet Confirmation is substantively focused on the reception, by the believer, of a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is, in a profound sense, a celebration of the mystery of God, and especially a celebration of the mystery of the Holy Spirit – since the work of the Spirit is not always visible or externally evident. The reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation is also a mandate that obliges, and hopefully inspires and enables the believer to conduct himself or herself as a disciple of Christ. It is a prescription whose expectations are described (for instance) in Matthew 12:50, Matthew 25:31-26, John 13:34-35, and John 15:13.
Holy Orders is a very specific commissioning, that recognizes that the recipient of a “laying on of hands” has a duties within the local church to preside over the mysteries, teach and preach the faith, and serve the community of believers.
The Birth of the Church
Finally, the Pentecost event described in Acts of the Apostles is often described as “the birthday of the Church.” It is the first time that we are told that the Holy Spirit makes itself present and known after the gathering of the Apostles in the Upper Room, after then Ascension, and most importantly, at a gathering of a wide and inclusive audience of Christian believers, from various backgrounds and nations. Thus, the Book of Acts communicates to us that the Spirit is not merely present in the Church as a corporate entity, but that it is present in each of us in a variety of ways (I Corinthians 12, John 14:17).