Pentecost Sunday, First Reading
9 June 2019, 31 May 2020, 23 May 2021

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of the author’s community

The world at the time of the text

Geography of the text

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today/challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

There are two ‘worlds’ behind the text: the world that produced it and the world of the time in which it is set.

The world of the author’s community

Church tradition attributes the writing of the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles to the same writer – Luke, an associate of St Paul. Acts is a continuation of the Gospel according to Luke.

Most scholars conclude from elements in the Gospel that the author was a Gentile writing for a community predominantly made up of Gentile Christians.

Scripture scholars would suggest that this was written in Greek between 80 – 90, some 50 years after the events it describes. This is significant because this is after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70), which means that by the time of writing the original harvest ritual dimension of Pentecost was no longer able to be celebrated in the same manner (see below).

The world at the time of the text

The events described here happened around 30 CE during Pentecost, a pilgrimage festival. At this time, there were Jews living throughout the Roman Empire who would have travelled to the festival.

The day of Pentecost is ‘the fiftieth day’ after Passover. It was celebrated as the Harvest festival or the Festival of Weeks, giving thanks to God for the gifts of the land and its produce. People would present the first fruits of the grain harvest in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Jewish tradition, this festival is also called Shavout.

Around the time of Jesus the festival was also increasingly associated with a celebration of God’s covenant with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, which occurred ‘in the third month’ after the people left Egypt at Passover. As noted above, by the time the Acts of the Apostles was written, the Temple had been destroyed and the focus on the harvest gave way to Pentecost as the commemoration of God giving the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, something on which the author draws.



Geography

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Questions for the teacher:

How does the information assist you in understanding the text? What else do you need to know?
What do the students already know about the world behind the text? What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

The world of the text

Text & textual features

The literary form of the Acts of the Apostles is a theological narrative that shows the fulfilment of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Throughout Acts, the Spirit is the principal mover of mission to the gentiles just as the Spirit was for Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

The Pentecost story is the first dramatic episode, the witness of the believers in Jerusalem.

The Pentecost story has three main sections, followed by an epilogue.

1. The description of the event (Acts 2:1-4)
2. The reaction of those watching (Acts 2:5-13)
3. The explanatory speech of Peter (Acts 2:14-41)

This story alludes to the dramatic and symbolic language of the book of Exodus with the outpouring of the Spirit on Mount Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.

Exodus 19:16-18

By using fire and noise the author is making a direct association with this passage.

An interesting note that adds to the drama of this event is that the crowd itself calls out the places from where people are gathered.

Characters & setting

This text refers to ‘all’. This ‘all’ most likely includes the disciples, Mary the Mother of Jesus and a range of believers totaling 120 persons as stated in Acts 1:14-15.

The text begins in a house – where they are gathered in a room. The text then moves outside where the impact of the coming of the Spirit is made evident.

Ideas/phrases/concepts

Bewildered
There are a variety of terms used expressing the emotional reactions: ‘bewildered’, ‘amazed’, ‘astonished’ and ‘perplexed’. The following concepts are at the heart of this sense of drama.

Tongues & Tongues of fire
The writer plays on the multiple understandings of tongue, both the physical organ of speech and its communicative action. Parallel to this understanding of language is the image of ‘tongues of flame”. What appears to be described here is a central mass of fire, from which sparks individually ‘divided tongues as of fire, which came to rest on each of them’. The fire reflects the presence of God in the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-12) and in the pillar of fire in the desert (Exodus 13.21).

This encounter influenced everyone present. Each person is called without distinction or division. The overall sense is that the empowering Spirit present to Jesus in his lifetime has now been distributed to those charged with the mission in the future ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts1:8)

Many scripture scholars refer to the gift of the Spirit as not so much the ability to speak in other languages but rather the gift of intelligible communication or the reversing of the division at Babel (Gen 11:7-9). The Spirit of God transcends all the boundaries brought about by human language and brings unity to all people over all the earth.

Wind/thunder
The presence of the wind immediately points to the Holy Spirit.

In the Old Testament, the word “ruah” (Hebrew) is used for wind and spirit. If you remember the Genesis story, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The wind here is “ruah” the breath of God; the Spirit. In the New Testament the Greek word pneuma (breath or wind) is used for the Holy Spirit, as it is here in verse 4.

Questions for the teacher

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

Mission
The key aspect of Pentecost is the empowerment of the disciples by the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ own life, the Spirit was with him. In Luke 24:49 Jesus said that he would send what his Father had promised and, in accordance with this commitment, the Spirit now transforms and empowers those who carry on his mission. The challenge for us today is to continue this mission, not just in our own places but throughout the world.

It is the Spirit who is the source of the drive to press on, not only geographically but also beyond the frontiers of race and religion, for a truly universal mission.

John Paul II (1990) The Mission of the Redeemer #24


Further practical applications of this may include:

  • Sharing the story of Jesus with the students in our classroom, their parents and our communities
  • World Mission Day
  • Catholic Social Justice Teaching
  • Supporting Catholic Mission and Caritas Australia
  • Sorry Day
  • Harmony Day

All peoples and cultures have the right to receive the message of salvation which is God’s gift to every person. [Jesus’ command to preach the Gospel to all nations has not ceased], rather this command commits all of us, in the current landscape with all its challenges, to hear the call to a renewed missionary ‘impulse’.

Pope Francis Message for World Mission Sunday, 2016 (Issued on the Solemnity of Pentecost, 2016)

How should we respond to the Spirit at work in our lives?
We radiate the Spirit and by our word and example invite others to share it. The gift of the Spirit are is for ourselves: they are to be shared. After the coming of the Holy Spirit, as we have seen, the disciples did not stay in that room luxuriating in what they had been given. They burst out to tell the whole House of Israel that God has made Jesus Christ both Lord and Messiah (Acts2: 32-36).

Church interpretation & usage

These include the following:

A Key Moment for the Church
Many rightly refer to Pentecost as “the birthday” of the Church. The coming of the Spirit sent the community of disciples on mission and as a result they became the Church. This community of disciples grew in their understanding of the mission. At first the disciples did not experience Pentecost as sending them on mission beyond their Jewish community. Over the course of the Acts of the Apostles the early community under the influence of the Holy Spirit came to see that its mission is to the ends of the earth. So, in this sense, the Church more fully came into being when the Jesus community saw itself as distinct from Judaism and that its mission goes out to all peoples.

Liturgical Celebration of Pentecost
This reading always is the first reading on Pentecost Sunday. The Paschal Triduum of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord is the most important celebration in the Liturgical Year. Pentecost, along with Christmas, the Epiphany and the Ascension, are the next most important days. The liturgical colour of Pentecost is red, reminiscent of the tongues of fire of Acts 2:3.

Confirmation
The Church often uses this text during the Sacrament of Confirmation during which those confirmed receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the same reason as above, red vestments may be worn for the celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation.