Pentecost: thefiery birth of the church

Roots of Faith



Pentecost (May 20), also called Whitsunday, doesn’t receive much attention, perhaps because it hasn’t been secularized with elves or bunnies, nor does it have its own candy.

The term Pentecost comes from the Greek word for “50,” as the day falls 50 days after Easter. It’s the last major holy day before Christmas, and also the church’s birthday.

During the Last Supper, Jesus knew he would soon be returning to his Father. He promised his friends that “the Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26 NABRE).

The Old Testament tells of God the Father working among the Israelites. The Gospels focus on Jesus. The Acts of Apostles describes the activity of the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, among the early church.

Sally Carpenter

Sally Carpenter

After Christ’s resurrection he continued to teach his followers for 40 days. Just before his ascension into heaven, he ordered his disciples to remain in Jerusalem “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

The disciples did not scatter but stayed united to devote themselves “with one accord to prayer” (Acts 1:14). Along with the 11 apostles (Judas the betrayer had killed himself) were some women, as well as Jesus’ kinsmen and his mother, Mary. At one point the gathering had 120 people (Acts 1:15). They waited and no doubt wondered what would happen next.

Ten days after the ascension, they found out.

Jerusalem was crowded with pilgrims arriving from many nations for the Jewish holiday of Weeks, also called Feast of the Harvest, held 50 days after Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Weeks marked the time when Jews could once again eat bread baked with yeast.

The disciples were among the pilgrims when there “came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were” (Acts 2:2).

The Bible associates wind with the Spirit, as when God breathed life into Adam (Genesis 2:7) and the winds reanimated the dry bones in the prophet’s vision (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

Winds can also make a clean sweep.

Following the wind, tongues of fire appeared on the heads of the disciples “and they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” (Acts 2:4).

All the people in the multinational crowd heard their own language spoken. At the tower of Babel, God scattered the people by creating various languages (Genesis 11:1-9). Here, tongues drew them together.

Peter, leader of the disciples, gave a sermon, and 3,000 people believed and were baptized (Acts 2:41).

Fire symbolizes the presence of God, such as when the Lord came to the Israelites at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18). Fire signifies energy and gives light in the darkness.

Fire is also a cleansing agent: “For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like fullers’ lye” (Malachi 3:2).

On Pentecost in liturgical churches, red is used for vestments and altar cloths to represent the tongues of fire.

Jesus performed miracles on Earth, and now the apostles could heal and do wonders as Christ’s representatives. Despite persecution, the disciples, now empowered, spread the gospel throughout many lands.

The book of Acts shows what today’s church can do when it is led and energized by the Spirit.

Sally Carpenter, M.Div., is a member of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Moorpark. Reach her at