Last week we celebrated the Ascension of Christ, when He entered the heavenly sanctuary as the high priest to sit at the right hand of the Father, offering Himself as a perpetual sacrifice in atonement for our sins. This week, we celebrate Pentecost, which could only occur after the Ascension, so we’ll examine how they are related.
When Jesus took His seat upon His heavenly throne, it was the final act of the Paschal Mystery. It brought God’s whole plan of salvation to its completion or – more accurately – to its fullness. Everything that God had promised, beginning in the Garden of Eden where He promised a remedy to sin (Gen 3:15), through the Old Testament fathers and prophets, and then ultimately in the Incarnation of His Word, was finally fulfilled with the Ascension. Being seated on His throne is the completion of Jesus’ earthly mission and He will not leave His throne until the end of time when He returns. It is from the throne that a king is able to give his subjects gifts. Jesus had surely given gifts to the people all along, but those gifts were not given in their fullness because Jesus’ mission had not yet reached its fullness. Let’s look to scripture to see how this unfolds.
Just before He ascended, Jesus instructs His apostles to remain in Jerusalem because His Father will be sending the Holy Spirit to them (Acts 1:4-5). Of course, we know what happens shortly after that is the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost (Acts 2:1- 4). However, when we look back at other scriptures, things get a little more convoluted. Take, for example, the baptism of Jesus. Once He came up from the water, the Spirit came down from the heavens in the form of a dove (Matt 3:16). Isn’t that the Holy Spirit? In Luke 22:19, we have what the Church teaches is the ordination of the apostles into the priesthood when Jesus says to them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” We know ordination cannot take place without the descent of the Holy Spirit on the man being ordained. Finally, we see Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit onto the disciples saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” (John 20:22). All of these examples are clear indications that the Holy Spirit was indeed present and active in Jesus’ earthly mission. So, what is the purpose of Pentecost? Pentecost is the moment when the Church received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, because Jesus had attained the fullness of His mission. Pentecost necessarily could not come about without the Ascension occurring first.
There is a catechetical term called the Pedagogy of God. It refers to the way God has taught His people and brought them, in the fullness of time, to the person of Jesus, over the course of salvation history, beginning with Adam and Eve. Knowing we are limited in our ability to understand Him, God does not reveal everything to us all at once. Either we wouldn’t be able to handle it, or we would forget it all as quickly as it was revealed. Instead, God, as a loving father, reveals things to us and gives us gifts over time, in stages, to help us grow and develop at a reasonable pace. Think about the Hebrews wandering in the desert for 40 years, learning to trust that God would bring them to the Promised Land. They complained a lot during those years, but He continued to give them just enough gifts to sustain them along the way. Had He taken them to the Promised Land immediately, they would not have learned certain lessons, nor would they have had the same level of gratitude upon finally reaching it. This is how God teaches.
So, what we see in Scripture is that the Holy Spirit had, in fact, been present prior to Pentecost, but only partially. He was there in stages, doing the work that needed to be done in the moment. The apostles were still learning and growing and not yet ready to receive Him in His fullness, until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them as tongues of fire (Acts 2:3-4). Then, in this fullness, the Church was born, and the apostles were finally able to do what they had been charged with doing, which was to “go out and make disciples of all nations” (Mat 28:19), empowered by the Holy Spirit. In each of their previously mentioned encounters with the Holy Spirit, no spectacular outward sign followed. After this encounter, though, the apostles could speak unknown languages that enabled them to go out and preach, resulting in the conversion of thousands. Pentecost shows us that when God’s plan is fulfilled, according to His slow and developmental method, then the greatest good is accomplished.
Looking back, you can likely see how these slow, developmental methods have played out in your own life. You started out as a child, learning to walk, growing into adolescence, and then into adulthood. You have likely learned many painful lessons along the way. You have learned to carry the sufferings sent your way better. You have learned to trust that God would lead you to where He wanted you to be, relying on the little gifts of sustenance He’s given you along the way until you get there. Imagine, like we did with the Hebrews, if God had revealed everything to you all at once. What would you have learned? Would you have remained in a state of gratitude? How would your faith and trust have grown?
At the end of last week’s refection, I mentioned that each of us is called to bring Jesus out into the world so that we might make disciples. That was asked of us at the Ascension. Now, like the apostles, it is with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon us that we are empowered to do just that. For us, that happens when we receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. At our Baptism, we are adopted into God’s family and given access to Jesus’ redemptive work. We also receive a share in Jesus’ priestly, kingly, and prophetic offices, in which we participate every day. As we grow and mature, we find that we have unique gifts, talents, and charisms, all given to us by God for the purpose of building up His kingdom. When the Spirit descends upon us at our Confirmation, we receive everything that He has to offer us in its fullness. That is not to say that they do not continue to grow and develop, only that we finally have everything we need for that to take place. Like the apostles, we are called to live out Pentecost every single day, taking our own unique gifts out into the world, allowing the Holy Spirit to work through us so we may help others get to heaven.
To receive articles and reflections like these directly to your inbox, please subscribe.