How the Fathers Interpreted Pentecost

Just before His Ascension, Jesus told His disciples to wait an undisclosed period of time in Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit:

“And [behold] I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

This would occur ten days later on the last day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival also known as the Feast of Weeks which lasted for fifty days, ending one day after a period of seven weeks (7×7-days). To the question of why they had to wait is generally attributed to the fact that on Pentecost Jerusalem would be crowded, setting the stage for the spectacular scene in which the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, preached the gospel to a large crowd each of whom were able to hear it in his native language. It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem, around 40-50,000, would swell to over 200,000 on certain holidays including Pentecost.

For Catholics it is regarded as the birthday of the Church, as 3,000 were baptized as a result of Peter’s speech. While we understand and celebrate the feast of Pentecost in light of the events that occurred that day, the early Church Fathers would analyze such episodes in the lives of Christ and the apostles in light of the Mosaic Law. They studied the Bible to see how certain aspects of the Jewish ceremonies and feasts prefigured their fulfillment in the Christian faith, thus enhancing their meaning.

The feast as prescribed in the Mosaic Law had an agricultural component and was also called the Feast of the First-Fruits. On the first day of the seven weeks a sheaf of wheat from the new harvest would be offered at the Temple. On Pentecost, the last or 50th day, loaves of bread made from the new harvest grain would be offered, the “first fruits”.

Since for the Christian feast the counting of fifty days begins on Easter Sunday, St. Cyril of Alexandria concluded that the sheaf of the new harvest of the Jewish festival anticipated the resurrected Christ. 

“Christ is prefigured here in the symbol of the sheaf. …He indeed is the first born from among the dead, the way which opens to us the Resurrection, He who makes all things new.”†

Clement of Alexandria focused on the symbolism of the number 50 which in the Mosaic Law also represented the Year of Jubilee, which came every 7×7-years plus one (Leviticus 25:8-10). In this year debts were forgiven and slaves set free; it was a time of joy for remission and restitution. For Clement the 7 weeks plus one day in the Christian Pentecost announced remission and forgiveness of sins and anticipated the freedom of man from slavery to sin and death:

“Some men say that this number 50 is the symbol of the pardon which takes place by the Pentecost.”

The Fathers also saw the day of Pentecost as a symbol of Christ’s resurrection as well as our own hope of resurrection, and of eternal life. This is based on the properties of the number 50 itself, comparing it to the Christian octave-day, the eighth-day, Sunday. Just as the Christian week begins and ends on the eighth-day, so also Easter Sunday plus 50 days concludes on a Sunday, the eighth-Sunday. St. Athanasius referred to Pentecost as “The Great Sunday”:

“As this time [Pentecost] is the symbol of the future world, we shall celebrate the great Sunday, taking here and now the pledges of the life eternal to come.”

They saw in the cyclical nature of the seven weeks (plus a day) a beginning point, then an ending point that arrived back to the beginning point, symbolizing eternity. During mass on Pentecost in the early Church all would stand during the prayers for which one was normally required to kneel, anticipating our life in heaven eternally praising God. St. Augustine:

“These fifty days are celebrated after the resurrection of the Lord as a figure not of work, but of rest and joy. This is why we also cease to fast, and why we stand when we pray, which is the sign of the resurrection, and the Alleluia is sung, to show that our future work will consist only in praising God.”

…rjt

†All quotations taken from Danielou, Jean, S.J. “Pentecost”. In The Bible and the Liturgy, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956, pp. 319-332.

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