The following reflection on Pentecost comes from Fr. Gerard Austin, OP, scholar in residence at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Father Austin was one of the co-founders of the liturgy program at Catholic University; he is a teacher of countless students, and an esteemed scholar of the liturgy. His writings continue to inspire and enlighten those who seek to understand the liturgy’s history and its meaning today for the life of faith. This passage first appeared in the newsletter of the Dominican province of St. Martin de Porres, New Orleans, LA. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.
For the first generations of Christians of the early Church, the liturgical year consisted of only a weekly celebration of the Resurrection: the Day of the Lord, the Sunday. At this celebration all the various elements of the Paschal Mystery were recalled. God was blessed, thanked, and praised for all the wonderful works of creation and redemption – especially for the wonder-of-God par excellence, God’s only-begotten Son, who gave of himself for us.
By the end of the second century, we see attestations of an annual celebration as well. It was modelled upon the weekly celebration, but it lasted for a period of fifty days, thus being referred to by St. Athanasius as the “Great Sunday.” Thus our present “Norms Governing Liturgical Celebrations” state: “The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated in joyful expectation as one feast day, or better, as one ‘Great Sunday’.” This fifty-day period has its roots in Jewish tradition, sharing for example, in the notion of being a “seal,” a completion.
At first, no particular day or days of the fifty-day period was privileged; rather, during the entire period was celebrated: the death, the resurrection, the later appearances, the ascension, the sending of the Spirit, and the waiting for the final coming of Christ. Nevertheless, before the second half of the fourth century, certain churches and certain Fathers of the Church did emphasize different aspects of the Paschal Mystery on particular days (as the Ascension on the fortieth day, the sending of the Spirit on the fiftieth day), but never destroying the notion of whole as whole. This approach was called the “global view of the Great Sunday,” and during this time the notion of “Pentecost” extended to the entire fifty days. The entire period was a “period of the Spirit.” Jesus had promised his followers that he would not leave them orphans; he would stay with them but in a new way: through his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which he would leave to them as his departing Gift.
Thus, one can well argue that the entire period from the Ascension of Christ to his Final Coming at the end of time is the “Era of the Holy Spirit.” This era, in which we are now living, is an era where Jesus is no longer with us in bodily form, but in a new way— in the presence of his Spirit. We have been assured the Gift of that Holy Spirit, but still down through the ages the Church never ceases to cry out, “Come, Holy Spirit, come”- not just on Pentecost but each and every day.
I think my favorite book on the Holy Spirit is I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT by Fr. Yves Congar, O.P. I find it significant that the final chapter of that highly respected three-volume work is entitled “The Life of the Church as One Long Epiclesis” (the Greek word meaning ‘invocation’ of the Spirit). We know that Jesus ‘promise not to leave us orphans is true, but still we pray each day that the Holy Spirit who already abides within us (and among us), might penetrate even more deeply into every fiber of our being! Yes, Pentecost is not just a once-for-all event of history; it is an ONGOING MYSTERY OF FAITH.
Let us allow the global view of the Great Sunday, the view that contains all the multiple aspects of the ‘Paschal Mystery’ to be reflected in our own private prayer as well. In conclusion, may I suggest your praying slowly the following trilogy of mantras:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
“Lord Jesus, Crucified and Risen Lord, send me your Spirit.”
“Come, Holy Spirit, come!”