Pentecost is the feast that recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection (see Acts 2). The event took place on the Jewish festival called the “feast of weeks” or Pentecost (see Ex 34:22; Dt 16:10).
Writing about 198 A.D., Tertullian testified that Pentecost was one of the great feasts of the Christian year. It was, after Easter, the time most appropriate for baptism.
At the end of the fourth century, the pilgrim Egeria tells us in great detail how the Church of Jerusalem kept the feast, perhaps when St. Cyril was bishop. The celebration lasted all day, from the first glimmer of dawn till way past bedtime, and the great throng of Christians proceeded in stations to all the holy places of Jerusalem. Round midnight, Egeria said, on Mount Zion, “suitable lessons are read, psalms and antiphons are said, prayer is made, the catechumens and the faithful are blessed, and the dismissal takes place. And after the dismissal all approach the bishop’s hand, and then every one returns to his house … Thus very great fatigue is endured on that day, for vigil is kept at the Anastasis [Church of the Holy Sepulchre] from the first cockcrow, and there is no pause from that time onward throughout the whole day, but the whole celebration lasts so long that it is midnight when everyone returns home after the dismissal has taken place at Zion.”
Next time you hear kids ask, “Is Mass almost over?” you can tell them how it was in great-great-great-great-(etc.)-grandpa’s day.
In fact, the Apostolic Constitutions (probably fourth century) indicate that the celebration of Pentecost should last a week (Sunday to Sunday, what we in the West call an “octave”).
So when it comes to your celebration of Pentecost, don’t baby it. Why did God become man? So that we might receive the Holy Spirit! So that we might ourselves be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4)! We have reason to celebrate.
If you don’t believe me, check in with Saints Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine. I, for my part, am partial to Pope St. Leo the Great:
Every Catholic knows, dearly beloved, that today’s solemnity should be counted among the principal feasts. No one questions the respect due to the day the Spirit made holy by the miraculous gift of Himself …
Pentecost holds great mysteries in itself, mysteries new and old. By them it is clear that grace was foretold through the old law, and the old law was fulfilled through grace. When the Hebrew people were freed from the Egyptians, the law was given on Mount Sinai on the fiftieth day after the sacrifice of the lambs. So, after the suffering of Christ — the true Lamb of God, who was slain — and on the fiftieth day from His resurrection, the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles and the crowd of believers. The true Christian can easily see how the beginnings of the Old Testament prepared for the beginnings of the gospel, and that the second covenant was founded by the same Spirit who had set up the first …
Oh, how swift are the words of wisdom! How quickly the lesson is learned when God is the Teacher! No interpretation is needed for understanding, no practice for using, no time for studying. The Spirit of Truth blows where He wills (see Jn 3:8), and the languages of each nation become common property in the mouth of the Church. So, from that day, the Gospel preaching has resounded like a trumpet. From that day, the showers of gracious gifts, the rivers of blessings, have watered every desert and all the dry land. To “renew the face of the earth” (Ps 103:30), the Spirit of God “was moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2); and to drive away the old darkness, flashes of new light shone forth. By the blaze of those busy tongues, the Lord’s bright Word kindled speech into fire — fire to arouse the understanding and to consume sin. Fire has the power to enlighten and the power to burn.
God’s word has authority, and it is ablaze with these and countless other proofs. Let us, all together, wake up to celebrate Pentecost. Let’s rejoice in honor of the Holy Spirit, through whom the whole Catholic Church is made holy, and every rational soul comes alive. He is the Inspirer of Faith, the Teacher of Knowledge, the Fountain of Love, the Seal of Chastity, and the Source of all Power.
Let the spirits of the faithful rejoice. Let one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be praised throughout the world, by the confession of all languages. And may that sign of His presence, the likeness of fire, burn perpetually in His work and gift.
The Spirit of Truth makes the house of His glory shine with the brightness of His light, and He wants nothing in His temple to be dark or lukewarm.
You’ll find a fuller text of Leo’s sermon in Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians, which I co-authored with my good friend Scott Hahn.