The solemnity of Pentecost was a Jewish feast day long before Christians began to commemorate the powerful arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Church community at Jerusalem. And truth be told, the Jewish observance of this early summer festival certainly had agricultural roots in the fulfillment that farmers experienced as their early spring plantings came to fruition. This spring planting would have occurred seven weeks earlier around the time of the Jewish feast of Passover and the later Christian observance of Easter. Then the next two months would have coincided with the farmers’ anxious witness of the first sprouts, the lengthening stems, the hardy stalks, the ripe kernels and the successful harvest of sweet rye, wheat, and barley. From a human perspective, the festival that later became Pentecost was a celebration of natural fulfillment, completion, accomplishment.
Ancient Israel capitalized on this handy symbolism of agricultural achievement and applied this harvest imagery to the fulfillment the Hebrew nation experienced when, having been delivered from slavery in Egypt, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where God gave them through Moses, the law that would constitute them a people, God’s “treasured possession.” Henceforth, the Jews would be “a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” The spiritual harvest promised in Egypt was brought to maturity at the foot of Mount Sinai as God gave to his chosen people the Ten Commandments, the law, the Torah. The solemnity of this giving of the Old Law was attested by signs and wonders as Exodus 19 details: On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud blast of the ram’s horn so that all the people in the camp trembled.” Political liberation had led to spiritual liberation. The Jews became a godly nation at Sinai.
In later Jewish history the liberating Mosaic Law sometimes took on the aspect of shallow observance. Jesus himself chastised his own people quoting the prophets: “These people honor me with their lips but their heart is far from me.” The Mosaic Law itself was intended as a framework for righteous living. The deeper aspects of a godly life — faith, prayer, justice charity — could flourish if the external demands of the Law were being observed. Observing the Commandments was not itself righteousness; rather observing the Commandments allowed righteousness to flourish, to come to completion, to be harvested.
The ancient spring harvest festivals, the Jewish commemoration of the giving of the Law at Sinai, and the Christian celebration of the arrival of the Holy Spirit fifty days after Easter all share the common theme of completion, fulfillment and achievement. As St. Luke relates in Acts, Jerusalem would have been a crowded place on Christianity’s first Pentecost. Jewish farmers would have brought their first fruits up to the Temple as an offering for the Lord. “Then you shall present a new grain offering to the Lord,” the book of Leviticus instructed. Amid this vast assembly the promised Holy Spirit came with power and might upon the assembled Christian community. The arrival of the Spirit, God’s new Law to be written in the hearts of all believers, was attended by signs and surprises reminiscent of Sinai’s marvels: “And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them flashes as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the spirit enabled them to proclaim.”
The seeds planted in the Old Testament were coming to fruition in the New Testament. The descent of the Holy Spirit was indeed a new harvest time. The prophet Jeremiah saw this clearly: “See, days are coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors the day I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Pentecost celebrates the ripening of the Holy Spirit within the hearts of the Christian faithful. The spirit’s power, strength, and grace are ready for harvesting. Let’s get to work!