Pentecost Vigil — 2016

This is extremely late, but I think it’s worth my effort. I hope you’ll find it worth reading.
Pentecost is one of a small number of solemnities which have a different Mass formulary for the vigil than for the day. When vigil Masses on Saturday evenings that would fulfill the Sunday obligation were permitted, new Masses were not composed for the vigils: the Sunday Mass texts were brought back to Saturday evening. But for Pentecost, not only is there a separate set of prayers and readings for the vigil, but there is even an option to have an extended vigil, similar to the Easter vigil, using all the optional readings. This is appropriate because in ancient times, baptism was conferred by the bishop at the Easter Vigil. If a catechumen was ready for baptism but unable to attend the Easter Vigil, the bishop would baptize him at a “make-up” celebration at Pentecost.
The first reading — Genesis 11:1-9 — provides a context for understanding the meaning of the descent of the Holy Spirit recounted in Acts 2:1-11, the first reading of the Sunday Mass. It is the familiar story of the Tower of Babel. It is situated about five generations after Noah in the genealogies of his descendants. The descendants of Noah are still in a single community, but they decide to seek to build a tower that will reach heaven, which is an implicit challenge to God’s transcendence. It is also wrong because it is being done for selfish motives. But it turns out to be counterproductive because, instead of keeping them together, as they had hoped, it becomes the occasion for their being scattered. God confuses their speech, giving them different languages, and disperses them over the earth. We don’t have to take this story literally to take the message that sin divides us not only from God but also from our fellow humans.

At Pentecost this confusion and scattering is overcome. People of differing languages all understand the apostles and people of differing nations are united in the one community of the Church. The Holy Spirit’s work brings unity.
The responsorial psalm — verses from Psalm 104, with a refrain based on verse 30 — is a meditation on God’s glory, his work in creation, and the dependence of all creatures on him. The refrain emphasizes the role of the Spirit in creation and the continuing renewal of the world. (There is a particular resonance with the alternate reading from Ezekiel, which I will discuss later.)


The second reading — Romans 8:22-27 — speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit within each believer. We have received the Holy Spirit in baptism, but the “redemption of our bodies” will not be completed until our resurrection. Meanwhile, we are incomplete. As St. Augustine says, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. But we don’t know precisely what God must do in us, so our praying cannot explicitly ask for what we need. But the Holy Spirit knows and is on our side.


The Gospel — John 7:37-37 — tells of words of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (also called Booths, Succoth in Hebrew). This was, along with Passover and Pentecost (or Weeks/ Shavuoth), one of the Feasts on which people were supposed to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Like Passover, it lasted a week. One of the main rituals involved drawing water from the pool of Siloam. Water was understood to represent the Holy Spirit. So, just as in chapter 6 Jesus proclaims himself the true life-giving manna from heaven, here he proclaims himself the source of the Holy Spirit for believers. There is a twofold aspect to the giving of the Spirit. The believer’s spiritual thirst is satisfied (recalling the reading from Romans). Beyond that, the believer becomes a conduit for the Holy Spirit into the world (recalling the Spirit’s work of restoring the unity lost at Babel). The image of rivers reminds us of the life-giving river flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47:1-12, a river which becomes wider and deeper as it goes.

The alternative first readings are Exodus 19:3-8a, 16-20b, an appearance of the Lord at Mount Sinai; Ezekiel 37:1-14, the vision of the dry bones; and Joel 3:15, a prophecy of the giving of the Holy Spirit and the Day of the Lord.

Exodus describes a theophany with thunder, lightning, cloud, trumpet blast smoke, fire, and earthquake. While Acts does not have so many details, there are wind, loud noise, shaking of the house, and fire. Pentecost was the Jewish feast recalling the giving of the Law, the Torah, at Mount Sinai. So the Holy Spirit is the Torah of the Christian, dwelling within the believer. Israel is called to be a holy nation, and the Holy Spirit incorporates us into God’s people.

Ezekiel’s vision of the dry and scattered bones that are rejoined, covered with flesh, and revived by the infusion of the spirit, contains a promise of resurrection (Paul’s “redemption of our bodies”) through the work of the Holy Spirit. As the Psalm says, when God sends forth his Spirit, creation is renewed.

In Joel we have a promise of a pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon all people, like the living water Jesus promises. it will lead to the Day of the Lord, marked, as in the Exodus reading, by meteorological phenomena. There will be salvation for all who call on the name of the Lord, as Jesus promises the living water to all who come to him.


For us, Pentecost gives a promise of salvation. It also presents a call to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our conduct. This not only assures our own salvation but, when we place no obstacles, makes us channels of saving grace to the world. Especially in the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we should manifest the merciful face of God to all with whom we come into contact. The Holy Spirit is the bringer of unity, and we must not bring discord and strife.


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