Scripture and the Liturgy

Pentecost Vigil: Gathering the Family of God

Pentecost is a very important feast in the liturgical life of the Church, and it has its own vigil.  Not only so, but the Readings for the Vigil are particularly rich.  I cannot think of another that has such a wide variety of options, for example, for the First Reading.  Even though only one First Reading will be proclaimed in any given Mass, it is well worth pondering them all, in order to come to understand the significance of Pentecost more deeply:

The First Reading Options for the Vigil:

1.  Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel: 

The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words.
While the people were migrating in the east,
they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.
They said to one another,
“Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.”
They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city
and a tower with its top in the sky,
and so make a name for ourselves;
otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”

The LORD came down to see the city and the tower
that the people had built.
Then the LORD said: “If now, while they are one people,
all speaking the same language,
they have started to do this,
nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do.
Let us then go down there and confuse their language,
so that one will not understand what another says.”
Thus the LORD scattered them from there all over the earth,
and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel,
because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world.
It was from that place that he scattered them all over the earth.

In Hebrew, “Babel” means “Babylon,” so in a sense this narrative gives us the account of the beginnings of the great evil city which will be one of the greatest symbols of opposition to God’s people, and later the place of defeat, captivity, and exile for the people of God. But “Babel” is also the etymological root for our term “babbling,” that is, making unintelligible sounds.  The city that opposes God is also the city of unintelligibility.  It suggests that opposition to God (lack of faith) leads to the loss of intellectual ability (lack of reason).

The tower is built with bricks and tar (i.e. bitumen)—artificial materials manufactured by men—rather than naturally occuring materials like stone and mortar.  There is an kind of ecological message here: man in his opposition to God employs technology and synthetic materials in opposition to the natural goods and natural order. 

Holy Mother Church suggests this reading because it is a kind of “bookend” near the beginning of Scripture that pairs with a “bookend” near the end of the Scriptural story: Pentecost.  Notice the contrast and comparison between Babel and Pentecost: in both cases, all humanity is represented (the list of nations in Genesis 10 is roughly summarized in contemporaneous terminology by St. Luke in Acts 2:9-11). 

In both cases, there is confusion because of speaking.  At Babel, they are confused because they do not understand.  At Pentecost, they are confused because they do understand! The Tower of Babel tells us how mankind was fractured.  Pentecost tells us how mankind is reunited as a family: by the Spirit, which forms the Church, which is the new Family of God.  Notice that at Pentecost, Peter’s leadership and preaching is highlighted (Acts 2:14-42).  Peter’s role in the Spirit-unified Family of God is crucial.  Without his leadership, the Family breaks up into autocephalous communions or various denominations.  Only where his Spirit-empowered leadership is respected does the family maintain its transnational unity.

The Tower of Babel reading emphasizes the role of Pentecost and the Church as the re-gathering of the human family.  The Church is not just about our individual salvation—“me and Jesus and heaven.”  The Church also has a social and sociological role to bring the human race back together as one.  The United Nations is a kind of secular church, a civil and ultimately irreligious attempt to achieve the harmony between nations that can only be found in the unity that comes from acknowledging Jesus as Lord of all.  Christians need to exercise care in order not to invest too heavily in international organizations that attempt to achieve the Church’s mission by secular means.  Many programs of unification for humanity have arisen since Jesus Christ—various empires, Freemasonry, Communism, etc.  All of these ultimately are false Churches that end up in competition or active persecution of the one true Church, the only organization that does, in fact, establish real harmony among nations wherever it spreads and is embraced.

2. Exodus 19:3-8, 16-20,  The Sinai Narrative:

Moses went up the mountain to God.
Then the LORD called to him and said,
“Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob;
tell the Israelites:
You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians
and how I bore you up on eagle wings
and brought you here to myself.
Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my special possession,
dearer to me than all other people,
though all the earth is mine.
You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.
That is what you must tell the Israelites.”
So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people.
When he set before them
all that the LORD had ordered him to tell them,
the people all answered together,
“Everything the LORD has said, we will do.”

On the morning of the third day
there were peals of thunder and lightning,
and a heavy cloud over the mountain,
and a very loud trumpet blast,
so that all the people in the camp trembled.
But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God,
and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.
Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke,
for the LORD came down upon it in fire.
The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace,
and the whole mountain trembled violently.
The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking,
and God answering him with thunder.

When the LORD came down to the top of Mount Sinai,
he summoned Moses to the top of the mountain.

The reason Holy Mother Church suggests this reading is that the Jewish Feast of Pentecost—which literally means “Fifty”, taken from the fifty days counted after Passover—was the Jewish liturgical celebration of the Giving of the Law at Sinai.  If one makes a careful count of the passing of time in the Book of Exodus, one discovers that the Sinai theophany (appearance of God) occurs exactly fifty days after the Israelites departed from Egypt.  So, Pentecost was not only an agricultural festival celebrating the end of the harvest, but also a sacred historical memorial of the day of the establishment of the Old Covenant.

This parallel and its significance is missed by modern readers, but not by ancient Jewish readers of Acts!  At Sinai the Law was given in a fearsome storm, and on tablets of stone.  At Pentecost, there is a “peaceful storm” of the Spirit (the rushing wind, the lightning-like tongues of flame) and the giving of the Law on the Heart. 

As St. Thomas says in his treatment of the Old Law in the Summa, “the law of the New Covenant is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.”  The Spirit is the Law written on the heart promised with the New Covenant:

Jer. 31:31   “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD,

when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel

 and the house of Judah, 

32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers

when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt,

my covenant which they broke,

though I was their husband, says the LORD. 

33 But this is the covenant which I will make

with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD:

I will put my law within them,

and I will write it upon their hearts;

and I will be their God,

and they shall be my people. 

34 And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’

for they shall all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD;

for I will forgive their iniquity,

and I will remember their sin no more.”

This passage from Jeremiah is a wonderful “intertext” to show the connection between Exodus 19-20 and Acts 2.  So we see that Pentecost is the fulfillment of what Jeremiah prophesied: a new covenant would be given to replace the old covenant broken by Israel in the wilderness and elsewhere.  This new covenant involves the writing of the law on the heart (the gift of the Holy Spirit) as well as the knowledge of God (the seven gifts of the Spirit) and the forgiveness of sins.  The forgiveness of sins is, of course, a very important theme of the Feast of Pentecost: “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), Peter famously says.

Hebrews 12:18-24 is also a must-read for the connection between the Sinai account and Pentecost! 

Heb. 12:18   For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest,  19 and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them.  20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.”  21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”  22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering,  23 and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,  24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.

Here we see the contrast between fearful Sinai and peaceful Zion.  The law was given with great fear at Sinai, and forty days later 3000 were slain in a rebellion against God.  At Pentecost, the new law is given in a “peaceful storm,” and 3000 are baptized into the New Israel.

I want to highlight a particularly important verse from Exodus 19.  Before the Ten Commandments are given, the LORD promises Israel through Moses: “if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant … you shall be to me a kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:5-6).  This phrase “kingdom of priests”, in Hebrew mamlekhet kohanîm, literally “a kingship of priests,” can be rendered either “kingdom of priests” or “royal priesthood.”  The Septuagint went with “royal priesthood,” but both renderings can be found in the New Testament (1 Peter 2:9; Rev 1:6). 

The pouring out of the Spirit makes the members of the Church into a Kingdom of Priests (Exod 19:5-6; see 1 Peter 2:9), a promise that was rejected by the Tribes at the Golden Calf episode, but is renewed to the Apostles and the other Israelites who heed their preaching in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and also to all us Gentiles who also partake in the same Spirit. 

1Pet. 2:9   But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

This reminds us that at baptism—first administered in its fullness at Pentecost—joins us to Christ’s roles as prophet, priest, and king (see Catechism §901-909).

3.  Ezek 37:1-14, The Resurrection of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s Vision:

The hand of the LORD came upon me,
and he led me out in the spirit of the LORD
and set me in the center of the plain,
which was now filled with bones.
He made me walk among the bones in every direction
so that I saw how many they were on the surface of the plain.
How dry they were!
He asked me:
Son of man, can these bones come to life?
I answered, “Lord GOD, you alone know that.”
Then he said to me:
Prophesy over these bones, and say to them:
Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:
See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life.
I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you,
cover you with skin, and put spirit in you
so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.
I, Ezekiel, prophesied as I had been told,
and even as I was prophesying I heard a noise;
it was a rattling as the bones came together, bone joining bone.
I saw the sinews and the flesh come upon them,
and the skin cover them, but there was no spirit in them.
Then the LORD said to me:
Prophesy to the spirit, prophesy, son of man,
and say to the spirit: Thus says the Lord GOD:
From the four winds come, O spirit,
and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.
I prophesied as he told me, and the spirit came into them;
they came alive and stood upright, a vast army.
Then he said to me:
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
They have been saying,
“Our bones are dried up,
our hope is lost, and we are cut off.”
Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD:
O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.

The dry bones in this vision, at one level, represent the national hopes of God’s people Israel, which have “died” and been “scattered” by war, exile, and diaspora.  At Pentecost, we see a remarkably widespread, representative group of Israelites from around the world (see Acts 2:5-11), gathered together in Jerusalem and “reunited” or even “resurrected” as the New Israel through the blowing of God’s Spirit.  They form the infant Church, the “resurrected” people of God.  In both cases it is the “blowing of the Spirit” that causes the act of re-creation that we call “resurrection.”

We ought never to forget that the Church is, as St. Paul says, the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), the restored Kindom of David, ruled over by David’s seed, Jesus Christ, and founded on twelve Israelites, the Twelve Apostles.  There is not one plan of salvation for Jews and another for Gentiles, but both Jews and Gentiles are called to form one Kingdom of David which is manifested on earth in the visible Church.  “The Gospel … is the power of salvation for everyone … for the Jew first, and also for the Greek” (Rom 1:16).

4.  Joel 3:1-5.  The Outpouring of the Spirit in the Last Days: 

Thus says the LORD:
I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.
Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions;
even upon the servants and the handmaids,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
And I will work wonders in the heavens and on the earth,
blood, fire, and columns of smoke;
the sun will be turned to darkness,
and the moon to blood,
at the coming of the day of the LORD,
the great and terrible day.
Then everyone shall be rescued
who calls on the name of the LORD;
for on Mount Zion there shall be a remnant,
as the LORD has said,
and in Jerusalem survivors
whom the LORD shall call.

The connection of this reading is obvious, since St. Peter quotes it as being fulfilled during his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:17-20.  Joel wrote perhaps seven hundred years before the coming of Christ, at a time in which the northern kingdom of Israel was being destroyed.  There seemed to be little hope for God’s people, but the prophet foresaw a future outpouring of God’s Spirit and a “remnant” on Mt. Zion.  This “remnant” is the three thousand who, together with the Apostles and 120 believers, form the nucleus of the New Israel, the Church.  This event is accompanied with the signs of Sinai: “blood, fire, smoke, darkness.”  Some of these phenomena we witnesses at the Crucifixion, where Jesus “gives up the Spirit,” and others we witness at Pentecost, where again the Spirit is poured out.

The Psalm.  Psalm 104, the great “Creator Spirit” Psalm, is the Responsorial for both the Vigil and the High Mass of the Feast Day:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 104:1-2, 24, 35, 27-28, 29, 30

R. (cf. 30) Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.
R. Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
How manifold are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you have wrought them all—
the earth is full of your creatures;
bless the LORD, O my soul! Alleluia.
R. Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
Creatures all look to you
to give them food in due time.
When you give it to them, they gather it;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
R. Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.
If you take away their breath, they perish
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
R. Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.

Verse 30 is used as the refrain: this verse is virtually the theme of the “decade” of the Spirit that we celebrate from Ascension to Pentecost.  Psalm 104 celebrates God’s glory revealed in his creation, which is brought forth, maintained, and renewed by the Spirit (compare Genesis 1:2).  At Pentecost, the Wind that blew over the waters of the young earth blows again over the believers gathered around the Apostles.  The Church is the foretaste or first-fruits of the New Creation, since Christ’s resurrected Body is our food.  As St. Paul says, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!” (2 Cor 5:17).  This concept flows nicely into the Second Reading (Rom 8:22-27), where Paul refers to us as having “the firstfruits of the Spirit,” that is, already in a mysterious way participating in the Creation that is to come in the next age, a participation which as yet is denied to rocks, trees, petunias, and Labrador Retrievers.  We have the “down payment” of the Spirit, yet we await a fuller experience of the New Creation which will come at the resurrection, when the rest of nature also will be renewed.

The Second Reading. St. Paul’s famous teaching on the Spirit from Romans 8:

Rom 8:22-27

Brothers and sisters:
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that sees is not hope.
For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because he intercedes for the holy ones
according to God’s will.

Here St. Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit is our great comfort in the sufferings that we endure in this earthly life.  Although Christ has saved us, we do not yet have our resurrected bodies, and we live in this “in-between” time of suffering, subject to all the weaknesses and evils of this present world.  But the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives assures us that we have eternal life (1 John 4:13), and even when we feel overwhelmed by the evils of this world, the Spirit still teaches us to pray, and prays on our behalf.  The Spirit is the great interpreter.  At Pentecost, the Spirit communicates the words of the Apostles in the languages of the people.  When we pray, the Spirit interprets our wordless longings into the language of God.

The Gospel.  This is the famous passage (John 7:37-39) where Jesus identifies himself as the Source of the River of Life which flows from the New Temple (see Ezekiel 47):

On the last and greatest day of the feast,
Jesus stood up and exclaimed,
“Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.
As Scripture says:
Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.”

He said this in reference to the Spirit
that those who came to believe in him were to receive.
There was, of course, no Spirit yet,
because Jesus had not yet been glorified.

This image is based historically on the spring called the Gihon, which emerges below the Temple Mount and flows below the City of David (a very old part of Jerusalem) to the Pool of Siloam, provinding water for all of the populace of the city.  The Gihon is the “river whose streams make glad the city of God.”  In Ezekiel’s vision, the Gihon is replaced with a much more spectacular river flowing from the Temple.  In John 7, Jesus identifies himself as the New Temple, and the Spirit as the River which flows from him.  The NAB translation of this passage is defensible, but I believe a different division of the Greek clauses is to be preferred.  In my opinion, the Greek of John 7:37-38 should be understood as follows:

“Whoever thirsts, let him come to me,

and let him drink who believes in me.

As the Scripture says,

‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’”

Translated this way, it is clearly Jesus’ heart that flows with rivers of living water.  I think this division of the clauses makes better contextual, narrative sense as well as theological sense.

Jesus’ Scriptural “quote” here is a paraphrase and summary of the vision of Ezekiel 47 and other passages from the prophets that foresee a supernatural river coming forth from the New Temple.  The Church sees in Pentecost the definitive realization of this vision.  The River of the Spirit is the water of baptism, which conveys the Spirit to believers (Acts 2:38).

In John 19:34 we see the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ.  Christ’s body is the New Temple.  At festival time, the old Temple flowed with blood and water, as the blood of animal sacrifice mixed with purification water spilled out of a pipe underneath the Temple and ran down to join the brook in the Kidron valley.  This is a symbolic fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John 7:37-39, but also a sign of the sacraments (Eucharistic blood and Baptismal water) that flow from the Body of Christ (the Church) as a kind of River of Life bearing the Holy Spirit through time and space to the whole human family, whoever is willing to come to the waters.

The Catholic Church offers eternal life for free to all who will come receive the Spirit of God from Jesus.  It’s the best deal around.

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