In the Preface for Pentecost Sunday the priest prays;
. . . For, bringing your Paschal Mystery to completion,
You bestowed the Holy Spirit today
on those you made your adopted children
by uniting them to your Only Begotten Son.
This same Sprit, as the Church came to birth,
opened all peoples to the knowledge of God . . .
The desire of Moses in Numbers 11:29 that God would pour out his Spirit on all peoples came to be treated as a prophecy at the time of Jesus. With the coming of the Messiah there was an expectation that the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ would be poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28-32; Jeremiah 31:34; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; Ezekiel 39:29). This lavish out pouring of the Spirit would be brought about through a prophetic liberator (Deuteronomy 18:15) or Messiah King (Isaiah 11:1-9; 61). Joel 2:28-32 is the passage Peter uses to interpret the fulfillment of these events at Pentecost in Acts 2:16-21.
The Jewish celebration of Pentecost was a one-day festival which originally celebrated the harvest or first fruits. In some Jewish traditions prior to time of Jesus, the feast of Pentecost may also have celebrated the giving of the Law at Sinai. It may be that the Christian event of Pentecost is a typological giving of a New Law by Jesus as a New Moses and a reversal of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel.
The Pentecost narrative can be divided into three parts: The Act of empowerment (2:1-13); Peter’s Pentecost Sermon (2:14-41); and the summary description of the ideal Christian community (2:42-47).
The out pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2:1-13 is described by way of analogy. While the disciples are gathered together in the upper room the Spirit manifested with a sound like a mighty wind, and they see tongues like fire divided and came to rest on each of them. All of them were “filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in different tongues.” The sound causes a crowd of pious Jews to take notice and the Sprit inspired proclamation astounded them because “each one heard them speaking in their own language” (2:6). Luke cites a very geographically diverse list of pilgrims in Jerusalem who are each able to hear the disciples each in his own language and dialect.
The implications of this filling of the Spirit have generated a great deal of debate among scholars. It seems clear that it involved an empowerment for mission, but the further implications of the event are seen in its interpretation by Peter in his Pentecost Sermon (2:14-41) which follows.
The event generates both interest and scorn from the crowd of pious Jewish pilgrims and this facilitates Peter’s ability to preach to a large crowd. Peter connects this event to the expectation or ‘promise’ of the prophet Joel (3:1-5) that God would someday pour out his Spirit on all flesh. The Jewish expectations of a coming of the Spirit of prophecy are also related to Jesus and the resurrection of the Messiah.
Upon hearing this message a large number of pilgrims are “cut to the heart” and ask Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do?” Peter’s response is a programmatic summary of conversion-initiation in Acts. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38). As the Catechism reminds us the essential elements of Christian initiation are; “proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion” (CCC 1229). In Acts 2:28 Peter specifically links Baptism to the forgiveness of sins, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins . . .” Almost identical words are used by Jesus at the Last Supper stating that his blood of the New Covenant will be shed “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). No one would deny that Jesus’ blood was shed on Calvary “for the forgiveness of sins” but some are reluctant to admit that Baptism is a means of receiving this grace of forgiveness. While the Holy Spirit is clearly active in all stages of conversion there is a definitive and complete reception of the person of Holy Spirit in Baptism.
Later while recounting his conversion, Paul recalls the words of Ananias, “Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away, calling upon his name” (Acts 22:16b). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses typology to say that the Israel was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). Peter later uses the example of Noah to say that just as eight people were “saved through water” so this ‘prefigures’ baptism, “which saves you now” (1 Peter 3:20-21).
Baptism gives us the grace of forgiveness of all our prior sins; it makes us a new creature and adopted son of God (2 Corinthians 5:17; 2 Peter 1:4); it incorporates us into the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:25) and creates a sacramental bond of unity leaving an indelible mark on our souls. (CCC 1262-1274).
Following Peter’s Pentecost Sermon, 3000 people accepted his message and were baptized, received the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:41) and were admitted to Eucharistic communion (2:42). This sequence of actions points to the Sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and reception of first Holy Eucharist. The Holy Spirit is at work transforming us, empowering us and nourishing us.