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The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

Father Gerard Beigel, S.T.D.


Forty days after his resurrection from the dead, the Lord Jesus was taken up into heaven and now sits in glory at the right hand of God the Father. He did not leave his disciples orphans, but promised that they would soon receive the Holy Spirit. "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

Following their Lord's command, the disciples remained in Jerusalem, gathered in prayer, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. Ten days later, on the Feast of Pentecost, about a hundred and twenty disciples were gathered in one place when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them. This experience and its aftermath is carefully described by St. Luke in chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles. A sound from heaven filled the house like wind and over all the disciples "there appeared to them tongues as of fire," which moved them to praise God and proclaim His saving works. A crowd quickly gathered, and to this group St. Peter began to preach that God was fulfilling His promises by pouring out the Holy Spirit through Jesus of Nazareth, now exalted as Lord and Christ through his resurrection from the dead. Peter called his hearers to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that they, too, could receive the same Holy Spirit. We can judge the power of the miracle of Pentecost by the fact that three thousand people were baptized that very day! They all entered into a new life through the power of the Holy Spirit, who formed them into the Body of Christ through the Apostles' teaching, through fellowship, prayer, and the Eucharist.

This brief overview of Acts 2 shows us that on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit—the Third Person of the Trinity—was being revealed to the world in a totally new way. And yet no one actually "saw" the Holy Spirit—indeed, no one can see the Spirit, simply because He is a spirit. The people responded to St. Peter's preaching because the life of the first disciples—their praise of God, their prophesying and preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—was a convincing proof to the crowd that God's Holy Spirit was truly moving among them. From this we can see that the first way people encounter the Holy Spirit is in the new life that the Holy Spirit gives within the Church, the Body of Christ. We first learn about the work or the effects of the Holy Spirit. Only after this do we actually discover who the Holy Spirit is. Hence, the first group of essays on the Holy Spirit in The California Mission during 1998 will consider the work of the Holy Spirit. Our final essay on the Holy Spirit will take up the question "who is the Holy Spirit?" The remainder of this essay will examine the experience of Pentecost in greater depth, following closely the description in Acts 2.

The Day of Pentecost

St. Luke's account of Pentecost in Acts 2 highlights four distinctive aspects of the miracle. We can acquire a full picture of the work of the Holy Spirit by reviewing in turn each of these four elements.

The Action of the Holy Spirit upon and among the Believers: First, there was the action of the Holy Spirit upon and within the 120 believers who were gathered in prayer. The disciples had a clear sense that the very room in which they were meeting was being "filled" with a divine presence, and each of them had a corresponding sense of being "filled" interiorly with the Holy Spirit. The immediate fruit of this action of the Holy Spirit was that the believers began to speak in tongues, praising "the mighty works of God" (Acts 2:11).

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit While the "gift of tongues" is perhaps the best-known aspect of the miracle at Pentecost, few people actually stop to think about the significance of this gift. It seems too mysterious and even confusing—perhaps something like the confusion produced by the multiplication of languages at the tower of Babel. Actually, however, the early Church Fathers saw this miracle as a reversal of what happened at the tower of Babel (see Genesis 11). At Babel, human beings tried to build a civilization without God, and the result was a total breakdown in human communication. At Pentecost, by contrast, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit immediately begins to unite human beings from diverse language groups and cultures. The crowds who quickly gathered around the disciples were from all parts of the Roman Empire, yet each person was hearing the same message in their different native tongues. The gift of tongues is the sign that the miracle happening among the 120 believers is able to "speak" to every nation, people, culture and language in the world. In other words, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, God is now restoring the unity of the whole human race. No longer are the divisions of the world by language and culture insurmountable. The first dimension of the work of the Holy Spirit among and within the disciples is that, by indwelling them, He made them one in mind and heart, thus revealing God's loving plan to unite humanity in and through His Son.

The Preaching of St. Peter: Like the conductor of an orchestra, the Holy Spirit fashions a harmonious hymn of praise to God from all the people of the world. The melody of this hymn is the gospel concerning Jesus Christ, which was first proclaimed to the world on the same day of Pentecost. This is the second distinctive aspect of the miracle at Pentecost that St. Luke highlights—the preaching of St. Peter that explained to the crowds what was truly happening. Some people who saw the disciples praising God and speaking in tongues concluded that they were drunk (see Acts 2:13–15). Other members of the crowd were mystified and wondered "what does this mean?" (Acts 2:12). No one in the crowd knew that what was happening was actually the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the first truth proclaimed by St. Peter in his preaching is the fact that the Holy Spirit is now being poured out in fulfillment of all of God's promises (Acts 2:14–21). Secondly, St. Peter explains how this outpouring of the Holy Spirit has come about—it is Jesus Christ who is pouring out the Spirit! Crucified by the leaders but raised from the dead by God, Jesus is now exalted as Lord at the right hand of God, and from this throne "he has poured out this which you see and hear" (Acts 2:32). Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has definitively intervened in the world, pouring out His own Spirit upon humanity, so that men might receive a share in God's own life! This is the gospel about the Lord Jesus Christ—a gospel that comes, not from man, but from God Himself. It was the Holy Spirit Himself who impressed this truth about Jesus Christ on the hearts of the people listening to Peter. His preaching, so closely attuned with the preceding action of the Holy Spirit upon and among the believers, was quite powerful. St. Luke notes that when the crowds heard this word "they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37). This brings us to the third important element of Pentecost.

The Call to Conversion and the Response: The gospel about the Lord Jesus is not just another interesting piece of news within the whirl of human history. If the gospel is true, then God is calling all people to life in His Son through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. God, the author of all life, claims every human heart through the preaching of the gospel concerning His Son. Wherever the gospel is proclaimed, men are therefore summoned to a life-changing response that they may receive God's gift. For this reason St. Peter concluded his preaching of the gospel on Pentecost by calling everyone present to repent and believe in the name of Jesus Christ. By sincerely repenting of sin and putting faith in Jesus Christ the human heart itself is converted—that is, fundamentally reoriented towards God. Thus, St. Peter promised the people that if they repented and were "baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, then you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). Conversion to Jesus Christ enables people to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus share in God's own life! A complete presentation of the Christian gospel must always include this summons to life. The people present on that first Pentecost "were cut to the heart" by Peter's preaching and call to conversion. St. Luke tells us that about 3000 people "received the word and were baptized" (Acts 2:41).

At this point, we can begin to glimpse the direction and depth of the work of the Holy Spirit that is accomplished in the outpouring on Pentecost. The Spirit first indwelt the disciples of Jesus—both individually and as a body—uniting them all in the light and fire of God's own life. The disciples were completely one in their praise of God, their prophesying, and their speaking in tongues—thus manifesting to others this unifying and healing love of God. This union of prayer, of hearts and of minds in the fire of the Holy Spirit, was the birth of the Church. The Church is the place where mankind recovers the unity for humanity that was willed by God in creation. And the basis of this unity is Jesus Christ, who, after his death and resurrection, is now made present to the world by the action of the Holy Spirit. Moved by the Spirit, the Church on Pentecost day faithfully manifested and proclaimed this gospel of life. She also called all people to a conversion of heart, so that they might receive the same divine life being given in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

In all of this we can see the two "places" where the outpoured Spirit dwells. The Holy Spirit creates, sustains and indwells the Church by uniting believers with God and with one another through the saving work of the Lord Jesus. Simultaneously, the Holy Spirit pierces and indwells the hearts of individual believers with this divine life that is given by Christ. No one is ever brought to "life in Christ" as an isolated individual. We are saved so that we might enter into new life together with others in the Church. It is no surprise, therefore, that St. Luke concludes his account of the miracle at Pentecost by describing this new life that the disciples and first converts entered into after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

The "Shape" of the New Life in the Church: The gift of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost is not a static reality. The life and love of God, unity in the Spirit—these are graces that must continually grow and take deeper root in our hearts. The divine life that is given at Pentecost is a life that develops, grows and matures until it produces its full fruit in God's Kingdom. This ongoing work of the Spirit in the lives of believers is as varied as the number of saints. Nonetheless, there are certain common elements that must be present in the lives of all believers if they are to grow in the life of the Holy Spirit. At the conclusion of his account of Pentecost, St. Luke gives a beautiful and concise description of those basic elements that shape the new life that is given to believers within the Church:

St. Luke

Chronicler of Pentecost So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41–47).

We can look at this description of the new life given by the Holy Spirit in several ways: from the perspective of the whole Christian community, from the perspective of the interior life of each believer; and from the perspective of the presence and work of the Lord himself in this new life. First, with regard to the community, there are certain external aspects needed in the Christian life: ongoing teaching that helps us to understand and love what Christ has done for us; fellowship with other believers; the celebration of the Eucharist; and prayer. Second, these practices of Christian living must be rooted in a heart that "fears" or "reverences" God. Third, the Lord Himself continually manifests the presence of divine life within the whole Church in two ways: through wondrous signs or miracles; and through the love and care that believers show to one another—even involving renunciation of property and sharing of goods—all of which brings about a unity that is not made by men, but by God. As Jesus declared at the Last Supper: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Even as I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34–35).

The description in Acts 2 of the new life in the Spirit can also be described in another way: it is sacramental, apostolic, charismatic, and Marian. The presence of Jesus continues in the Church through the sacraments, two of which are singled out in this passage: baptism, the sacrament of rebirth, by which believers receive the new life in the Spirit within the Church; and the Eucharist, the receiving of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus that constantly "infuses" believers with his life. The new life is also apostolic: within the Church we grow in Christ by having our minds and hearts renewed through apostolic teaching and by remaining in communion with the apostles. Third, the new life is charismatic: there are wonders and signs done as believers remain docile to the work of the Holy Spirit. These gifts ("charisms") bear fruit in a generosity that truly breaks down the possessiveness and selfishness that afflicts all human beings. Finally, the divine life given in the Church at Pentecost is also Marian. As noted in Acts 1:14, "Mary, the mother of Jesus," was among those 120 believers who were gathered together in the upper room for the novena of prayer leading up to Pentecost. Her presence at Pentecost was not incidental, but essential. As the Catechism explains, Mary's presence at Pentecost manifests her motherhood over the whole Church, a calling for which she was uniquely prepared by the prior work of the Holy Spirit in her own life:

At the end of [this work of the Spirit in her] Mary became the Woman, the new Eve ("mother of the living"), the mother of the "whole Christ." As such, she was present with the Twelve, who "with one accord devoted themselves to prayer," at the dawn of the "end time" which the Spirit was to inaugurate on the morning of Pentecost with the manifestation of the Church.

Through all of these ways of the new life—sacramental, apostolic, and charismatic—and supported by the motherly presence of Mary, the unity of the Church is constantly deepened and the hearts of individual believers are similarly purified and strengthened in the power of God's love. This work of the Holy Spirit building up the new divine life within the Church is clearly an answer to the prayer of the Lord Jesus at the Last Supper: "Father, I pray that all may be one; even as you are in me, and I in you; so also may they be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me,… and that you have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:21–23). Only the Holy Spirit can bring humanity into this unity, which is the divine unity among the Persons of the Trinity. This divine unity given by the Spirit to the Church is the whole purpose of the Church's existence. Since this unity is a sharing in the inner life of God, the love and communion binding the Church together is her primary gift to the world. What the Church is, is more important that all the works that she does. This truth opens our eyes to the heart of the meaning of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost actually continues to abide in the Church and within the hearts of the faithful, making them "the temple of the living God." Thus, the work of the Spirit at Pentecost opens our eyes to see who He is—as we profess in the Creed, He is "the Lord, the giver of Life."

Together with Mary, the unity of the Church is deepened. "By this You Know the Spirit of God" (1 John 4:2)

The "new life" given by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost provides the standard for judging how complete is our own life in Christ. How do we know the Holy Spirit dwells in us? By the life that He gives! If we hunger for God and His life, if we are moved to glorify and praise Jesus Christ for the gift of himself and the work of redemption, if we are hastening to keep our unity and peace in the Holy Spirit with others in the Church—then it can only be because the Spirit Himself dwells within us! The grace of Pentecost is supposed to be the Church's perpetual inheritance. Through Baptism and Confirmation and all the varied movements of authentic spiritual renewal within the Church, we receive the same Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost. It is no small thing that God gives human beings a share in His own Spirit. We must always reverence and guard this gift. We must always examine our life to see whether the signs of "life in the Spirit" are there. In Jesus Christ we have been called by God through the power of the Holy Spirit to receive and grow in the same life that the Apostles and first Christians received on the day of Pentecost. Our life in Christ will grow and bear fruit in the Spirit if indeed we have fellowship with other believers that flows from the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are called in the Lord to a life of praise, worship and evangelization, a life of fellowship and teaching, a life of prayer and Eucharist, a life united with Mary the Mother of God. By these spiritual practices we retain and grow in the grace of Pentecost. Then, as we are united in the power of the Holy Spirit, the prayer of Jesus is fulfilled in us as well: "Father, make them one … so that the world may believe that you sent me and that you have loved them even as you love me" (John 17:21–23).

The Catechism's Teaching on the Holy Spirit

The Catechism's teaching on the Holy Spirit is concentrated in its first part, which explains the Church's profession of faith. The Church's teaching about the Holy Spirit is found in two different sections within this first part of the Catechism:

* The section on God the Father (paragraphs 232–267). This whole section speaks first about how the mystery of the Trinity was revealed—by Jesus in his ministry and then by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (238–248). Second, it describes the language and theological terms that the Church uses to explain her teaching about the Trinity (249–256). Third, it describes how by the respective "work" or "missions" of the Son and Holy Spirit in history that the Father fulfills His plan of salvation—to give humanity a share in divine life in Christ through the Holy Spirit (257–260).

* The section on the Holy Spirit Himself (paragraphs 683–747). This section is divided into five parts:

1. The Joint Mission of the Son and Holy Spirit (689–690). 2. The Names, Titles and Symbols of the Holy Spirit (691–701). 3. God's Spirit and Word in the Time of the Promises (702–716). 4. The Spirit of Christ in the Fullness of Time (717–730). 5. The Spirit and the Church in the Last Days (731–741). The essay in this issue takes up the same teaching in the fifth part about the Spirit and the Church in the Last Days: the manifestation of the Holy Spirit as a divine person on Pentecost, the simultaneous revelation of the Trinity, the new life of believers sharing God's love through the gift of the Spirit, and the building up of the Church by the Holy Spirit. A later issue of The California Mission will survey part two on the Names, Titles, and Symbols of the Holy Spirit. Parts three and four survey the work of the Holy Spirit in the time of promises leading up to the coming of Christ, and then the particular work of the Holy Spirit within the life of Jesus himself. In the time of promises, the Holy Spirit was not fully revealed. He worked in creation and within Salvation History, anointing the Patriarchs, Moses, judges, prophets and kings—all to prepare the way for the coming of Christ. When Christ came "in the fullness of time," the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, bringing about the conception of Jesus. The Spirit then worked within the whole life of Christ, consecrating him as Messiah, anointing him as the sacrifice that brings salvation to mankind, and then glorifying him in the resurrection and ascension.

Article Used with Permission from Fr. Gerard Beigel - Originally from The California Mission




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