Today is Ascension Thursday, but in most of the United States celebration of this feast has been moved to this coming Sunday. Our Easter Season will soon be coming to a close. In the first reading for today’s Mass, which we will hear on Sunday, the evangelist Mark tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that Our Lord was “taken up” after he had given instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He appeared to them on several occasions throughout the 40 days after His resurrection. Before he left, he instructed them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for “the promise of the Father; for John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
Was Our Lord afraid that they might scatter after his Ascension? Perhaps, but He told them to remain in Jerusalem. They all arrived in Jerusalem some 30 days earlier to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish feast celebrating the events in Egypt when the Angel of Death passed over their homes, sparing the lives of the first born. It was during this Passover celebration in Jerusalem that the First Born of Creation passed from human death to life for all eternity, opening the gates of heaven, and providing our salvation.
The fulfillment of the promise – the baptism by the Holy Spirit – was planned for the second most important of the great Jewish feasts – the feast of Pentecost, which was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. It is referred to in the Old Testament by several names, including “the feast of weeks” (Exodus 34:22) and “the day of firstfruits” (Numbers 28:26). It commemorates the time when the first fruits of the wheat harvest were brought to the temple, hence the name “first fruits”, and was celebrated on the day after 49 days (or 7 weeks) had passed since Passover, hence the “feast of weeks”.
While it seems that this feast was originally focused on giving thanks for agricultural success, as Judaic customs developed, a new significance was attached to this celebration. Since the close of Biblical times, the Pentecost has been held to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, which according to the Book of Exodus, took place on the fiftieth day after the departure from Egypt.
It appears that in Jesus’ time, the call to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Pentecost was as strong as it was for the Passover. As Luke relates in the second chapter of Acts when speaking about Pentecost: “Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.” (Acts 2:5)
Jesus of course was Jew, a devout one, a teacher. He kept the Judaic Law and customs. As our Catechism tell us, “The Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi. He often argued within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the law.” (CCC 581). In his message in the Sermon on the Mount He makes it clear: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17)
What better time to fulfill the law and the prophecies than on the great Jewish Feasts? As our Catechism explains: “On the day of Pentecost when the seven weeks of Easter had come to an end, Christ’s Passover is fulfilled in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit….He, then, gives us the ‘pledge’ or ‘first fruits’ of our inheritance: the very life of the Holy Trinity, which is to love as ‘God [has] loved us’. (1 John 4:11-12) This love (the ‘charity’ of 1 Corinthians 13) is the source of new life in Christ, made possible because we have received ‘power’ from the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:8)” (CCC 731-736).
So the birthday present that we, the Church, were given on that Pentecost was God’s love, and the inspiration to love others as God loves us, something we call Charity, the first principle of our Order.