In the Gospel according to St. Matthew (28:19) we read: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit….” This is known as the Great Commission. But how was it to be inaugurated and accomplished?
In biblical times there were several pilgrimage festivals a year in the Jewish tradition; the first of which was Passover, followed fifty days later by the Festival of Weeks. In Greek fiftieth translates as pentecost. Consequently, fifty days (pentecost) after Christ’s death and resurrection there was another occasion when Jews from around the Mediterranean area gathered in Jerusalem to observe a major religious and, in a sense, obligatory feast of their faith tradition. It is reasonably accurate to say this particular Jewish feast and our Thanksgiving Day celebrations have much in common. And to lend emphasis to the diversity of the Jews of the Diaspora who traveled to Jerusalem on the specific Pentecost we celebrate today, we read from the Acts of the Apostles (2:9-10) the following: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and other parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs….” Further it is also fair to observe, given the arduousness and duration of travel at that time, thousands of these Jewish pilgrims were probably not in Jerusalem fifty days earlier for Passover at the time of Christ’s trial, Passion, death, Resurrection, subsequent Ascension, and other occasions when he appeared to his disciples. In other words, any and all conversations these pilgrims would have upon their arrival in Jerusalem with other Jews about these events would be literally shocking and rampant with curiosity. What a wonderful opportunity for evangelism and “making disciples of all nations…”; for these pilgrims were destined to return to their own countries and could thereby carry with them the “good news” of Jesus Christ.
Into this unique setting and circumstance came the power of the Holy Spirit, “like the rush of a violent wind”; and “divided tongues, as of fire”; and “all of them (the Apostles) were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” It is this historic event we celebrate and commemorate today, particularly in the Liturgy of the Word: the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, equipping them with the gift of tongues, enabling them to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem in their own language, who would then witness and evangelize upon return to their native country. Additionally, St. Peter gave a momentous sermon to the multitude calling for repentance for sin and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins; and they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; and “that day about three thousand persons were added.”
Why is this important and meaningful to us, thousands of years later? Like the newly converted three thousand at the first Pentecost, we too have been baptized by the Holy Spirit, and we too have the spiritual gifts of the Spirit for witnessing to and evangelizing our faith, for building up the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. The Great Commission still requires our dedication and effort. We need not necessarily be traveling back to a “native country” to share the Gospel, we can do it among our family and friends, within our workplaces and communities. The message of forgiveness, reconciliation, and love of Pentecost may celebrate many birthdays, but it never grows old.