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.”


†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.

The Descent of the Dove

Jordan river, possible site of Jesus’ baptism.

We wonder, as John did, that since baptism reflected a commitment to repentance, why Jesus, who had nothing to repent, nevertheless insisted on being baptized himself:

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?’” (Matthew 3:14).

Jesus understands John’s reluctance and explains, “…it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The Greek word translated “it is fitting” does not imply obligation or necessity. The act of baptism was a righteous deed as it reflected a personal resolution to cease disobeying the commandments of God, but as a religious rite it ended there. Jesus is saying that it is important to fulfill, or “make complete” this particular act of righteousness. Continue reading “The Descent of the Dove”

Four Key Features of the Transfiguration

Church of the Transfiguration, Mt. Tabor

Christ’s revelation of his glory to Peter, James, and John through his transfiguration confirmed Peter’s earlier confession of Jesus as the Messiah (Mark 8:27-30). But there was a much broader purpose of the vision as well:

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’ Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:2-8).

1. The Presence of Moses and Elijah

Continue reading “Four Key Features of the Transfiguration”

Cries and Tears in the Garden

“In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7).

When we think about the events surrounding Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane we probably picture it as described in St. Mark’s gospel. In great agony Jesus prays three times, asking his Father if there was another way He could accomplish His will than by, and Jesus was well aware of this, being slowly tortured to death:

“…[H]e said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.’ When he returned he found them [the disciples] asleep. …Withdrawing again, he prayed, saying the same thing. Then he returned once more and found them asleep, …He returned a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?…” (Mark 14:35-41).

Luke and Matthew’s versions of events are a little different from Mark’s, and when we sort out the three evangelist’s respective accounts we get a much fuller picture of what likely occurred the night Jesus was betrayed. Continue reading “Cries and Tears in the Garden”

The Promise that Israel Will be Saved.

I befriended a number of young native Israelis when I lived in the country and was surprised at their indifference upon hearing that I was a Christian. They seemed equally apathetic about Judaism. It was their ethnicity as Jews and connection to the land of Israel as their national homeland that unified them.

Something else that came as a surprise was when one friend gave me a Hebrew Bible published specifically for the Israeli Defense Forces. It was given to her brother when he was conscripted into the army; every soldier gets one and almost all 18 year-old’s are drafted, men and women. He didn’t want it. I was shocked when I  noticed that it contained the New Testament, which in Hebrew is called Haberit Hakhadasha, “The New Covenant”. There’s probably a copy sitting in most Israeli households. Continue reading “The Promise that Israel Will be Saved.”

The Canticle of Simeon and the End of an Era

The Song of Simeon (nunc dimittis) lies within St. Luke’s Presentation narrative (2:21-40) in which he recounts that forty days after His birth, Jesus is presented in the Temple as the first-born male and a sacrifice is offered. Simeon, a devout Jew awaiting the “consolation of Israel”, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah as soon as he sees Him, breaking out in a song of praise.

But St. Luke omits something in the narrative:

“When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (vs. 39).

Why does St. Luke skip the Magi, Herod, the murder of the Innocents, and the flight to Egypt, all of which occurred before the Holy Family returned to Nazareth? Since Luke was undoubtedly aware of those events, their omission might reflect a specific purpose in his writing. Recall that Luke’s gospel constituted a letter written to a man named Theophilus:

“…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, Most Excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:3-4).

Continue reading “The Canticle of Simeon and the End of an Era”

The Underlying Message of ‘The Visitation’

During the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel informs Mary that her cousin Elizabeth is in her sixth month of gestation, letting her know that though barren and advanced in age, the birth of Elizabeth’s baby, like Mary’s, would be a miraculous event. So here we have a very old woman who had always been barren and a very young girl who had taken a vow of virginity (see here), both pregnant. Mary then travels to visit Elizabeth, “in haste”, and St. Luke reports the remarkable exchange that took place upon Mary’s arrival.

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.'”

Two things taken together here strike me as extremely important from a theological standpoint. The First is that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit”, meaning that everything she subsequently said would carry theological significance. The second is her use of the word “baby”, “the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” The word for baby in Greek is brefos, and does not imply a fetus or an unborn child, but just as it does in English the word strictly means “baby”. St Luke will use the same word in chapter 2 verse 16, in reference to the shepherds: Continue reading “The Underlying Message of ‘The Visitation’”

On the Trail of the Seed of Eve

Reading the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) as narrative is not just spiritually rewarding but a lot more fun. What I mean by this is to read the text as one would read a novel, experiencing the drama by identifying and connecting broader themes as well as minor ones. Most Old Testament scholars today break the Pentateuch up into diverse source materials which they then analyze individually in light of history and archaeology. In doing this they tend to miss or discount the broader themes that the author of the Pentateuch intended to convey. Tracing the seed of Eve in Genesis is an example of reading the text as narrative.†

In His response to the Fall of Adam and Eve, God charges the serpent with what constitutes, on the one hand, a threat to his “seed”, and on the other, the promise of hope to humankind:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel” (Gen. 3:15).

Note that the references to the offspring (seed) of the serpent are singular and thus directed at Satan himself; he and his seed are one. Who then constitutes the seed of Eve that will crush the head of Satan? While it is left an open question, the author of the Pentateuch carefully traces this seed through various genealogies and narratives.

In the story of Noah we see how God’s promise develops; He judges the world yet preserves the obedient Noah and his family. After leaving the arc Noah builds an altar and sacrifices to God, who then blesses Noah:

“And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Gen. 9:1).

Now the promise concerning Eve’s seed will be preserved through Noah’s descendants.

Nimrod on the Tower of Babel. From John Huston’s film, ‘The Bible’.

But not through his great-grandson Nimrod. In the genealogy of Noah’s descendants in Genesis 10-11 (the Table of Nations), Nimrod receives an extended comment:

“Cush [son of Ham] became the father of Nimrod, who was the first to become a mighty warrior on earth. He was a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD; hence the saying, ‘Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter in the eyes of the LORD.’ His kingdom originated in Babylon, Erech and Accad, all of them in the land of Shinar. From that land he went forth to Assyria, where he built Nineveh…” (Genesis 10:8-12).”

Continue reading “On the Trail of the Seed of Eve”

How Did the Disciples React to the First Eucharist?

At the Last Supper, after Jesus consecrated the bread and wine for the first time, is it possible that one or more of the disciples believed upon hearing these words that an actual transformation of the elements of the bread and wine had taken place? I think it’s possible that Judas was probably the only one who didn’t, and for four reasons.

First, at the Last Supper, when Jesus broke the bread and said, “This is my body”, he had said it in Aramaic. Semitic languages do not have words to indicate the verb “to be” in these types of statements. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the verb is implied when a subject and predicate are simply juxtaposed. What Jesus literally said as he held the bread was, “this, the body of me”. The disciples would have understood that the one is precisely identified with the other. Also, there were other expressions Jesus could have used to indicate that the bread was only to be regarded as a symbol.

Secondly, when Jesus said the words of consecration, the disciples would have immediately recalled the incident recorded in the Gospel of John chapter 6. Jesus repeats four times to a large crowd of followers that they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life. They had thought He was referring to cannibalism, and Jesus did nothing to prevent their deserting Him because they had understood Him correctly, but faithlessly. So Jesus doubles down, demonstrating that this whole dialogue was specifically aimed at the twelve disciples:

“What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (vs. 62).

He puts them in a corner with an obvious dilemma. Let me paraphrase Jesus’ words,

“I just told you that to have eternal life you and anyone must consume my real body and blood. So how will you do that when I’m not here?”

Continue reading “How Did the Disciples React to the First Eucharist?”

9 Little-Known Facts About The Crucifixion of Jesus

A valuable study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986 (Volume 256) entitled “On the Physical Death of Jesus”. The authors included a Pathologist, an expert in Medical Graphics from the Mayo Clinic, and an Evangelical minister. It begins with a historical analysis of crucifixion as a form of execution and moves to the physiology of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Shroud of Turin

Two things make this study important. First, it takes the accounts of the crucifixion from the gospels as we have them as authentic; Evangelicals don’t do historical criticism so there was no attempt to theorize based on reconstructed source material. Secondly, the experts regarded Shroud of Turin as the actual burial cloth of Christ, which provides many of the details of what occurred during Jesus’ final hours. Some of the findings:

  1. St. Luke recorded that during the agony in the garden, Jesus’ sweat became like blood. Bloody sweat is known as either hematidrosis or hemohidrosis and is caused by blood hemorrhaging into the sweat glands. While it is rare, it “…may occur in highly emotional states or in persons with bleeding disorders.”
  2. Scourging always preceded crucifixion and was intended to weaken the victim to shorten the time spent on the cross.  “[A]s the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. …The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a preshock state.”
  3. Jesus did not carry the whole cross but just the crossbar (patibulum). The whole cross would have weighed about 300 lbs.
  4. The sign that Pilate had ordered to be made, “Jesus the Nazorean, King of the Jews”, was customary and was held up by a Roman soldier in the front of the condemned man during the procession to the place of crucifixion. It displayed the name of the criminal and charge against him.
  5. The wine with the gall (a “mild analgesic”), which was offered to Christ, was a requirement under Roman law.
  6. Since nailing the palms would not have supported the weight of the body, the wrists were nailed (as in the Shroud). “…[T]he driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms. Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a clawlike grasp.”
  7. Fixing the feet to the cross could be done with either nails or ropes, the Shroud indicates that Jesus’ were nailed. His knees may have been bent since crosses did not always have a footrest.
  8. “Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.”
  9. Jesus’ death came unusually quickly; crucifixions could go on for days. This was likely the result of the severity of the scourging. “The fact that he could not carry the crossbar supports this interpretation. The actual cause of Jesus’ death, like that of other crucified victims, may have been multifactorial and related primarily to hypovolemic shock [rapid blood loss], exhaustion asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure. A fatal cardiac arrhythmia may have accounted for the apparent catastrophic terminal event.”

The language of the article and the accompanying illustrations are rather cold and come across like a coroner’s report. It is heartbreaking to read. The crime against the state for which he was executed was for being “The King of the Jews”.