Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pentecost Sunday

Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in the book of Acts, ushering in the beginning of the Church. 50 Days after Jesus' resurrection (and 10 days after Jesus' Ascension), the apostles were gathered together, probably confused and contemplating their future mission and purpose. On the day of Pentecost, a flame rested upon the shoulders of the apostles and they began to speak in tongues (languages), by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus Pentecost is a time for many Catholics and other Christians to celebrate two important realities: the Holy Spirit and the Church. Pentecost has long been a very important feast in The Catholic and Orthodox Churches because it celebrates the official beginning of the Church. It is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Church, second only in importance to Pascha (Easter). Pentecost always falls on a Sunday, fifty days after Easter Sunday (inclusive of Easter Sunday), and occurs during mid-to-late Spring in the Northern hemisphere, and mid-to-late autumn in the Southern hemisphere.

Pentecost is also the Greek name for Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), falling on the 50th day of Passover. It was during the Feast of Weeks that the first fruits of the grain harvest were presented (see Deuteronomy 16:9). New Testament references to Pentecost likely refer to the Jewish feast and not the Christian feast, which gradually developed during and after the Apostolic period.

In the English speaking countries, Pentecost is also known as Whitsunday. The origin of this name is unclear, but may derive from the Old English word for "White Sunday," referring to the practice of baptizing converts clothed in white robes on the Sunday of Pentecost. In the English tradition, new converts were baptized on Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints Day, primarily for pragmatic purposes: people went to church these days. Alternatively, the name Whitsunday may have originally meant "Wisdom Sunday," since the Holy Spirit is traditionally viewed as the Wisdom of God, who bestows wisdom upon Christians at baptism. In other parts of the world, Pentecost has other names, including "Green Sunday" in the Ukraine and "Green Holiday" in Poland. These names are derived from Pentecost customs that involve taking green plants into homes and churches as symbols of new life. These customs also may hearken back to the harvest festival themes of the Jewish Pentecost.

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