Anticipating Pentecost

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The story of Pentecost is one of the best known stories of the New Testament. As with the beloved stories of the Gospels— such as the Good Samaritan, the Last Supper, and the Visitation of the Magi— familiarity actually obscures rather than enhances our understanding. This text, however, comes to life when read slowly and thoughtfully. As with other good stories from Scripture, the story of Pentecost has a specific setting: a festival day in Jerusalem. Not only do the place and time set the context, but also there is a sense of anticipation related to this day. The day of Pentecost was fifty days after the festival of Passover.

Two dynamics blended to make this a popular holiday. The ancient roots of Pentecost are traced back to an agricultural celebration; the harvest of the first sheaves of barley brought joy to the people. Later, as the liturgical life of the people developed, Pentecost became a remembrance of the events on Mount Sinai, specifically the gift of the law to Moses. This blessed gift of the Ten Commandments also evoked joy. These two joyful elements increased the significance of the holiday of Pentecost; not only was God dependable, as witnessed in the first sheaves of the barley harvest, but God was also gracious, as attested to by the provision of a divine law.

Every year the nation gathered in gratitude to celebrate and remember God’s providence. On this particular year, when the day arrived, all the followers of Jesus were together, attending to their usual tasks of remembering and giving thanks.

Every year the whole nation waited in anticipation for the announcement of the actual day of Pentecost. In this particular year, when the day arrived, all the followers of Jesus were together waiting and praying. Into the quiet of prayer, a sound like a mighty wind shook the room. (Try to imagine the shock and surprise of a prayer meeting blown open!) The sound, however, was only a call to attention. Next came the vision of something like tongues of fire, and with that vision came the peculiar manifestation of foreign speech.

The formal name of this phenomenon is xenolalia, the inspired capacity to speak a foreign language. As distinct from glossolalia, the gift of speaking in spiritual tongues requiring interpretation, xenolalia is articulate speech immediately understood by those familiar with the particular language. The wind, vision, and foreign tongues were amazing; however, even more amazing was the inclusivity of God’s Spirit. All were included in the event: disciples and followers, young women and old men, as well as strangers from across the known world.

Adapted from The New International Lesson Annual Copyright © 2005 by Abingdon Press

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