Feast of Pentecost: Reversing Babel

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | June 8, 2014

Holy Spirit ended the confusion which human pride had brought about

There’s been a lot of “gathering into one” at Sunday celebrations lately. First, we’ve had many first Communions, where our young people drinking from the one cup and eating one bread for the first time. There have been readings about the Good Shepherd and one flock to which we all belong (Fourth Sunday of Easter). We’ve heard about living stones built into one “spiritual house” around the cornerstone of Christ (Fifth Sunday of Easter).

Now there’s the Tower of Babel for Pentecost.

“Wait a minute,” you’ll say. “Tower of Babel is not about coming together at all.”

You’re right. The story we know so well from Genesis is about coming apart. All the people of the world at the time — descendants of Noah (from that one ark) — decided to build a tower to heaven.

“Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth” (Gn 11:4). God heard their plans and put an end to them: “If now, while they are one people and all have the same language, they have started to do this, nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach” (Gn 11: 6).

God confused their one language into many tongues and scattered them over the earth. (Just as they hoped to avoid.) The building project, of course, stopped. Who can build anything when they can’t understand each other?

“Scattered over the earth.” Sounds like seeds scattered over fields in spring, doesn’t it? Those seeds grow into wheat that can be gathered together into one bread. A few weeks ago, this column quoted an early Christian text, the “Didache,” which mentions how the bread of the Eucharist was once “scattered,” but is now gathered “into one bread.”

That brings us to Pentecost.

The first Christian Pentecost — a Greek word meaning “50 days” — took place on the Jewish feast also called Pentecost, as Acts 2 tells us. The Jewish Pentecost was one of three important pilgrimage feasts in Jesus’ time, and is still important to Jews of our time. On the pilgrimage feasts, all Jewish men who were able to do so were required to come to the Temple in Jerusalem. (The other pilgrimage feasts were Passover in spring and Sukkot in autumn.) The Jewish Pentecost — comes at the end of a careful count of 50 days from Passover. Passover (around the time of Jesus’ death) marked the barley harvest and Pentecost (50 days later) marked the wheat harvest, the end of grain harvests for the year. (Sukkot marked that harvest of olives and grapes). Shavu’ot honored the first wheat that the Israelites were able to harvest in the land God had given them after their exodus from Egypt.

Pentecost is also called the “Day of First Fruits” and the “Feast of Weeks.”

At Passover, Jewish men waved sheaves of barley before the altar in the Temple; At Pentecost, they would wave loaves of bread made from harvested wheat. Notice how the sheaves of barley — with individual seeds in the ear — link to the loaves made from harvested wheat seeds.

While early Jewish Pentecost celebrations commemorated the first harvest in the Promised Land, the feast later took on an added dimension still celebrated today: Pentecost also honors the “giving of the Torah,” when God gave Moses the Commandments on Mt. Sinai. Devout Jews stay up all night before Pentecost, reading the Scriptures. On Pentecost, they celebrate how the people became one nation under God’s law at Sinai.

“The Jewish Encyclopedia” notes the Pentecost is called “the birthday of the Torah when Israel became a constitutional body and ‘a distinguished people.’”

So at this Jewish festival celebrating many comings-together, the first Christian Pentecost happened. People from around the world — “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, …” — gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast. But — shadows of that failed Tower of Babel — they still spoke a multitude of languages.

Then, on that first Christian feast, God came down, just as God had come down to Babel’s tower to confuse the language and scatter the people. However, this time, God the Holy Spirit came down not to scatter, but to gather everyone together. To show this God “un-confused” the languages: “At this sound, … they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6).

This gathering together of people — begun by Jesus in the Eucharist — continued in the fruits of the sacrament of confirmation poured out at that first Pentecost. Two sacraments of unity, both of which we celebrate in special ways this time of year.

“Unity can only exist as a gift of God’s Spirit who will give us a new heart and a new language, a new ability to communicate,” Pope Benedict said in his last Pentecost homily on May 27, 2012. “And this is what happened at Pentecost.”

As the retired pope reminds us, the gathering into one that God demonstrated at Pentecost (both for Jews and Christians) continues to this day, always under that guidance of God the Holy Spirit.


Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Jewish Encyclopedia”; the “Didache”; Judaism 101 at jewfaq.org; myJewishLearning.com; and vatican.va.


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