Two Days to Celebrate
The Day of Pentecost—Year C
June 9, 2019
As many of you know, I’m a bit of a history nerd. And while all history is fascinating to me, today’s reading from the book of Acts is right in my sweet spot. This point in Israel’s history is known as the Second Temple period—and while that may be a daunting name, it really just describes the time period after the people of Israel returned from exile and built the second temple, until its destruction in 70 A.D. But our reading today is about far more than just a history lesson. It’s also about God’s continuing revelation to God’s people. Today’s story begins with an ancient celebration, one you perhaps have never heard of, but one that is integral to the story of Pentecost.
Today’s story begins with Shavuot.
Shavuot, as you likely have guessed by now, is a Jewish holiday. It’s one of the major holidays right alongside Yom Kippur and Passover and is historically one of the pilgrimage holidays—meaning if you could get to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple you would. Shavuot is also a biblical holiday; it was instituted as a harvest celebration in the book of Numbers. However, the celebration quickly took on deeper meaning.
Shavuot has become a day to celebrate the giving of Torah to the Jewish people. Torah is a Hebrew word often translated as “law,” however Torah is so much more than our understanding of “law.” It is better translated as instruction or teaching and that is what is being celebrated on Shavuot—God’s gift of instruction to the people of God. Instruction that helped them learn how to live in relationship with God and others. On Shavuot, knowledge of the divine was given to the people of God and they were welcomed into relationship with a holy and loving God.
Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with Pentecost. A good question—and one I will answer with a couple of questions of my own.
First, can anyone tell me the name of the last Jewish holiday before this one? Passover
Exactly, Passover—a day which for Christians has taken on additional meaning as the day Jesus, our Paschal (Latin for Passover, by the way) Lamb, rose from the dead. So Passover and Easter are linked. Our understanding of Easter is dependent upon the Jewish celebration of Passover, and without it this most central of Jewish celebrations, our own central celebration starts to lose its meaning.
Second, how many days ago was Easter? Fifty.
So Pentecost takes place fifty days after Easter. Would it surprise you if I told you that today, fifty days after Passover, is Shavuot. Hmmm…if that’s true, it seems like this holy day may be more important to our story in Acts than we realize.
Let’s read again the first few lines of Acts, “When the day of Pentecost had come…”
Wait a minute, what does the author mean “When the day of Pentecost had come…” This is the story of the first Pentecost, how could Pentecost have already come? Maybe Pentecost here, doesn’t mean what we think it does.
Pentecost is a Greek word and it simply means “fiftieth.” Pentecost, in this context, was how the Greeks and Romans referred to the Jewish festival that was celebrated fifty days after Passover, aka Shavuot.
So our first line from our Acts reading actually says, “When Shavuot had come, the disciples were all together in one place.”
The disciples hadn’t gathered for no reason—they were gathered to celebrate Shavuot, to remember when God revealed Godself to God’s people and gave to them a roadmap for how to live in relationship with God, humanity, and all of creation.
And then it happens—the sound of a violent wind, just like the winds that blew across Mt. Sinai as Torah was given. Tongues of fire come to rest on the heads of the disciples, fiery reminders of the lighting that shattered the night sky on top of the mountain. And the disciples begin to speak in other languages and, as Acts tells us, “there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
This portion about the gathering of the people all hearing the word of God in their own language is particularly interesting. There is a traditional belief within Judaism that the Torah, when first given, was heard by each person in their own native language.
So let’s see if we have this straight. It begins with a group of faithful people gathered together. Suddenly, God shows up. Thunder echoes and lightning flashes, and these faithful are gifted with divine knowledge. These faithful ones stand in an elevated place and a crowd gathers below them. Each person in the crowd is shocked to hear their own language from the lips of the faithful. These faithful ones proceed to deliver a message about God’s presence in the world. The divine knowledge given to them will help the faithful and all who join with them to navigate their world. It empowers them to live more deeply into God’s mission of love, justice, and reconciliation in the world.
So you tell me, which holy day is this? Is it Shavuot or Pentecost? Or, do these words describe both holy days?
Today is a day to celebrate. We celebrate that God isn’t done speaking. God is still gifting us with God’s divine knowledge, still revealing to us how to live in relationship with God, others, and all of creation. God is still speaking…are you still listening?