After the Ascent came the Descent. Jesus ascended to the Father on the fortieth day after Easter; ten days later He sent forth His Spirit upon the Apostles, Mary, and other followers of Jesus, about 120 of them who had huddled up at the Cenacle in Jerusalem, for fear of the Jews. They had been continually praying for nine days since the Ascension. (Note that this marvellous event led to the idea of a novena as days of prayer leading up to a feast; and, in particular, the Novena to the Holy Spirit in the run-up to the Pentecost).

How delightful it must have been! That morning, God had timed the descent of the Holy Spirit to coincide with Shavuoth (Acts 2:1–31), which traditionally heralded the wheat harvest. In time, Shavuoth came to mean the seven weeks since the Passover; it was finally replaced by ‘Pentecost’ (from the Greek word pentēkostē, “50th”), which comprises the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit, as noted in the First Reading (Acts 2: 1-11). A sound from Heaven, like the rush of a mighty wind, filled all the house. Interestingly, spirit means both ‘breath’ and ‘wind’ in the Hebrew culture!

Even more striking were the tongues ‘as of fire’ that came to rest on each one of those Galilean disciples. Thus ‘ignited’, they began to speak in foreign lingoes, to the bewilderment of the motley crowd from every nation under the sun, who had gathered there on the occasion of the Jewish festival. That is the miracle of Pentecost, which indicates that God wishes to be followed and praised by people from every land and clime – unlike Jewish converts of old who had to promptly renounce their native language and culture.

The Second Reading (Cor 12: 3-7, 12-13) speaks of how the disciples built the Church. As St Paul says, ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good… For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ That is to say, Christians contribute their time and talent for the benefit of the community.

In the day’s Gospel (Jn 20: 19-23), the Holy Spirit gives the apostles gifts and fruits necessary to fulfil the great commission of going out, preaching the Good News of Salvation and being the light to all nations. The power to forgive sins is the greatest gift to the Church, which is never free from sinners.

The Church thus built is the ‘Mystical Body of Christ’, mystical because, in Fulton Sheen’s words, ‘this Body is not physical like a man, nor moral like a bridge club, but heavenly and spiritual because of the Spirit which made it one.’ That it is ‘Christ’s prolonged Self’ can be proved from the Voice from Heaven that said, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘When the Body of Christ was persecuted, it was Christ the Invisible Head Who arose to speak and to protest,’ writes Sheen in his Life of Christ.

Can there be any doubt that the Church born at Pentecost is the Church we belong to? She enjoys four distinctive marks of life: unity; catholicity; holiness; and apostolicity. The Church is animated by one Spirit; she absorbs and redeems humanity without distinction of race or colour; she is holy as a whole, even if her individual members are diseased; she is apostolic, because she took roots in Christ and her ministry derived from the apostles by a continuous succession.

The deeper significance of Pentecost is that Jesus, who once ‘emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’, thereby received His fullness and was glorified. He now lives, teaches, governs and sanctifies us, better than He did in Judea and Galilee – for, as Son of God seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, He can reach out to the whole world better than He could when He walked the earth as Son of Man.

Pentecost was an important event in the history of the primitive church and continues to be so in our own times too. After Peter had preached his first homily to the Jews and others, showing how Joel had prophesied the coming of the Holy Spirit, about 3,000 people, cut to the heart by the Crucifixion and enthused by the Resurrection of Our Lord, asked for baptism. Within a few decades important congregations were established in major cities of the Roman Empire. It is not difficult to understand how, centuries ago, our own ancestors, attracted by the Mystical Body, the Bride of Christ, converted to the Christian faith.

The stronger our adherence to the Church, the quicker will be the spread of Christianity in our day and age. Can we imagine ourselves being born outside the Church? No. Let us therefore honour the glorious birthday of the official Church. It is a gentle movement of hearts that still brings together people formerly separated by languages, cultures, races and nations, and will culminate in the Second Coming of Christ. Let’s commit ourselves to putting our lamps on a high stand such that it shines upon all that are in the house. Reaching out to people from the seven corners of the globe is a continual challenge. Let’s be ablaze with love of God and neighbour, and pray, ‘Send us, O Lord, your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!’