Scripture and the Liturgy

The Feast of Pentecost

I highly recommend reading the commentary I also posted on this site on the Readings for the Vigil in preparation for the Mass of Pentecost Day.  The Readings for the Mass of the Pentecost pick up, as it were, where the Readings for the Vigil left off.

The First Reading is, finally, the account of Pentecost itself, from Acts 2:1-11:

Reading 1 Acts 2:1-11

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.”

We have already remarked on the intimate relationship between this event and Babel (Pentecost is the Un-Babel) and Sinai (Pentecost is the giving of the New Law of the New Covenant).  It is important to note that the congregation gathered around the apostles comes not only from a wide variety of nations of the earth, but also consists of “Jews and converts to Judaism.”  In other words, there are both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles here: those who hear the apostles are truly a representative cross-section of humanity.

It is unfortunate, though understandable, the rest of Acts 2 is not read for this Mass.  A reading of the rest of the chapter should be obligatory for every homilist or teacher and  would allow the following points to be made:

(1) The close association of the giving of the Spirit with the ministry of Peter, the spokesman to and for the Body of Christ.  One of the goals of the Church is the reunification of the human family.  Denominationalism and nationalism among non-Catholic Christians defeats this goal.  Like him or not, the successor of Peter remains the central figure of world Christianity.  All Catholics are united in their fidelity to him, and the only thing that unites all non-Catholics is their opposition to him.  Thus he is the great unifier.  See this article by the Protestant Graham Clover. 

(2) The close association of the giving of the Spirit with baptism, and by extension the sacramental ministry of the Church: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

(3) The correlation of the worship of the early Church and Mass: “And they devoted themselves to

         (a) the apostles’ teaching and

         (b) fellowship, to the

         (c) breaking of bread and the

         (d) prayers (Acts 2:42).”  This is a perennial description of the life of the Church. We see all these same elements in the Mass, respectively, in (a) the readings and homily, the (b) passing of the peace, (c) the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and (d) the Collect and the Eucharistic Prayer.  St. Luke records the life of the early Church in such a way that we can recognize our continuity with them, because we are the same Body extended in time.

The Responsorial Psalm is the same as that for the Vigil.  See above.

The Second Reading (1 Cor 12:3-13) raises several interesting points:

Reading 2 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13

Brothers and sisters:
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit;
there are different forms of service but the same Lord;
there are different workings but the same God
who produces all of them in everyone.
To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit
is given for some benefit.

As a body is one though it has many parts,
and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body,
so also Christ.
For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

St. Paul says, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

What does it mean to say “Jesus is Lord?”  Remember that Jews like Paul did not pronounce the divine name (YHWH) but substituted adonai in Hebrew and kurios, “Lord,” in Greek.  The fullest sense of proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” is to identify him with the God of Israel who revealed himself to Moses.

Further, Paul’s statement that “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit,” reminds us that Pentecost, while a extraordinary event, is not the first bestowal of the Spirit on mankind.  The Spirit has been active since Creation.  Particularly, a careful reading of the infancy narratives of Luke 1-2, to mention just one example, shows how active the Spirit was even before the earthly ministry of Christ.  St. Paul’s statement implies that the Spirit was already active in some way upon certain individuals who confessed Jesus as Lord in the Gospel narratives (e.g. Matt 15:22, John 20:18,28).

This is an important point to make in relation to the Gospel Reading (John 20:19-23), which is John’s record of the initial bestowal of the Spirit on the Apostles:

Gospel Jn 20:19-23

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Sometimes this is called the “Johannine Pentecost,” but it would be incorrect to pit these two events against one another, as if John was of the opinion that the Spirit was given at one time, and Luke of the opinion that it was dispensed at another.  In the Christian life, there are certainly definitive giftings of the Spirit (for example, in Baptism and Confirmation), but the Spirit comes to us continually, not just once.

In fact, Luke does record the same event we find detailed in today’s Gospel Reading, although the fact is frequently missed.  In Luke 24:49 Jesus says, “Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you.”  The Greek is present tense:  Jesus is giving the Spirit as he speaks, which is the event recorded in John 20.  The rest of Luke 24:49 says, “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from high.”  So Pentecost is not the first time the Apostles receive the Spirit.  Rather, it is a special dispensation, it is a “clothing with power from on high.”  We should understand it as an extraordinary empowerment with authority, gifts and charisms that they will need for their apostolic ministry.  As the Second Reading emphasized, there are many gifts and forms of ministry inspired by the same Spirit.

Finally, the Gospel Reading emphasizes the coordination of the ministry of the Spirit with the Apostles.  John makes the same point as Luke, a point we have remarked on in previous posts.  Highlighted here is the essence of what we know as the Sacrament of Reconciliation: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained.”  This emphasizes the purpose for which the Spirit is given: that our sins may be forgiven. 

Calvin struggled with this verse and ended up arguing that the “forgiveness of sins” referred to the apostles’ preaching.  Through preaching sins were forgiven or retained.  One can see that interpretation is certainly not the obvious meaning of the text.  Perhaps if the entire Church had always understood the verse that way, one could accept it as its meaning, but of course, that’s not the Church’s tradition either.  Like many other passages of Scripture, this was one in which Calvin could not actually live by the principle of “sola scriptura.”  When talking with other Christians, Catholics should remember that it is most certainly not a question of “them” taking the Bible “literally,” and “us” taking the Bible “figuratively.”  The differences between Catholics and other Christians revolve around which passages are to be taken one way or the other.

As a Protestant pastor I never even noticed John 20:23.  Now, I love this verse as an assurance that those vested with the leadership of the Church have been granted by Jesus himself the authority to remit sins.  I’m not left to battle with my own subjective judgments on my own behavior, which are invariably self-justifying and biased, but I can state reality before the man on whom hands have been laid, and objectively, tangibly hear the voice of the Spirit: “Absolvo te …”


  1. Always learning something new from this site. I look so forward to the Sunday readings thanks to you. God is certainly blessing your work!

  2. Thank you John, for your excellent description of Sunday’s readings. Otto…

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