Reading Acts From Ascension to Pentecost

Every year I make a point of reading through Acts of the Apostles between Easter and Pentecost.  I do so to remind myself of the power unleashed by Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension and bestowed on the Church at Pentecost, a power that is fully available to us.  This year I got a late start!

All four Gospels record that John the Baptist prophesied that in contrast with his own baptism in water for repentance, the one coming after him would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire,” as Matthew and Luke say!  Interestingly, this prophecy is not fulfilled in the Gospels themselves.

The bestowal of the Spirit could not take place until Jesus had been “glorified” (John 7:39).  Peter explains why Ascension precedes Pentecost: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out this which you see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

Acts begins with the Risen Lord foretelling the imminent fulfillment of “the promise of the Father” that Jesus had spoken about to his disciples: “John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4-5).

That baptism with the Spirit occurs on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles, Mary, the mother of Jesus, his brothers, and other disciples—about 120 people all together (Acts 1:14-15).  The arrival of the Spirit is marked by miraculous signs—the sound of wind, tongues of fire, the ability to understand unknown languages—and by altered behavior of Jesus disciples—spiritual joy that appears to skeptics as drunkenness, and by prophecy, inspired speech in other languages (“tongues”) telling “the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11).  The immediate consequence of this Spirit-baptism is a holy boldness that enables the once fearful Peter to preach with power and great effectiveness.

What many readers fail to notice is that Acts reports similar “altered behavior” on the part of subsequent groups of believers in Jesus who are “baptized in the Holy Spirit”:

  • Philip’s Samaritan converts (Acts 8:14-19)
  • Gentile believers in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:45-47)
  • Disciples of John the Baptist who come to faith in Jesus (Acts 19:6)

What’s the point?  For the early Church reception of the Spirit was not merely an article of faith regarding the effects of baptism or confirmation.  It was an experiential reality that was so obvious and universal among the early Christians that St. Paul points to it as a proof against the doctrine of the Judaizers in Gal 3:2-5:

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?  Did you experience so many things in vain? — if it really is in vain.  Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

What about Catholics today?  How many have so distinct an experience of the Spirit in their lives that they could find Paul’s argument persuasive?

Baptized as infants and confirmed in early adolescence, very many Catholics lack the understanding, desire, faith, or repentance necessary for the reception of these sacraments to be fully efficacious when they receive them (see Catechism 1131).  Consequently for many, the grace of Pentecost, the experience of being “baptized in the Spirit” that Jesus came to bestow, awaits their understanding, faith, and desire.

Pope Benedict spoke of this in 2008:  “Let us rediscover, dear brothers and sisters, the beauty of being baptized in the Holy Spirit.”

As Pentecost approaches, let us ask in faith that the Holy Spirit be poured out on us (Luke 11:9-13; John 7:37-39; Eph 5:18-20), so that we may be renewed in the Spirit as the Church in Jerusalem was in its time of need (Acts 4:31-35).  Let us be docile to the Holy Spirit and open ourselves to his charisms as Blessed John Paul urged us to do.

Between Ascension and Pentecost let us read through Acts again to stir our faith regarding “the promise of the Father,” to remember what the Church was like under the powerful influence of the Gift Jesus came to bestow, and to renew our zeal for the mission entrusted to us.

Comments

  1. Fr. Pieter vanRooyen says:

    Thanks for the words Dr. Williamson! I will take you up on the invitation to read Acts and ask the Father for the Spirit. God bless you.

  2. Peter S. Williamson says:

    Thanks, Father Pieter! Great to hear from you.
    Here are the verses I read from Acts yesterday and today that capture my heart:
    From St. Paul’s farewell to the presbyters of Ephesus:
    Acts 20:24 “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. ”
    And in a similar vein in the next chapter:
    Acts 21:13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”

    Now if only the Lord will strengthen us to be consistent, day in and day out, in this fervor!
    Warmly in the Lord,
    Peter

  3. I accept that challenge on behalf of Jenn&Lindsay! 🙂

    This time is always just a little sad. It reminds me of the 8 am daily Mass that we have at our parish. I usually attend the 6:30 am Mass. Every day, after Mass, we sing “O Salutaris Hostia” and Jesus is exposed on the altar. I get to spend a few minutes in Adoration before heading off to work.

    At the 8 am Mass, the first thing they do is sing “Te Deum” and Jesus is taken away. I know that we will see Him again in just a few minutes during the Mass, but I still can’t help feeling a little bereft when He is taken out of the chapel. The apostles probably felt something like this, only much more magnified. I *know* that I will not only see Him in just a few minutes, but be physically and spiritually united to Him as well. Plus, I have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with me always. These poor men did not have these comforts, plus had good reason to fear.

    I hope to participate to some degree in the joy, relief and empowerment they must have experienced at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon them. 🙂

  4. We had a couple questions on Acts. In Acts 1:12, they speak of “the mount of Olivet” being “a sabbath day’s journey away.” What length of time did they mean by this? A day? A week? Or to indicate a very short distance, because you weren’t supposed to walk very far on the sabbath?

    In Acts 4:36-7, a man named Joseph sold a field and gave the money to the apostles. Could this be the same Joseph who donated the tomb? (A Levite, native of Cyprus, living in Arimathea….)

    And finally, if there were 10 days between’s the Lord’s Ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, did they celebrate the Eucharist in this time? As we have it now in the liturgy, the priest calls on the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts; how would this have been done prior to Pentecost?

    Thanks!

  5. Peter Williamson says:

    Hi Jennie and Lindsay,
    Thanks for your questions.
    As regards the first about Acts 1:12, the ESV Study Bible sums it up well:”A Sabbath day’s journey was the maximum distance one could travel on the Sabbath without it constituting work. This was not an explicit OT law but a later Jewish tradition. ” The distance was about one kilometer.
    As to the Joseph of Acts 4:36, “surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, son of encouragement),” he is called Barnabas from then on in Acts and Paul’s letters. I know of no indication that links him with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph as a common Jewish name at the time.
    We really don’t know about the earliest celebrations of the Eucharist. According to Acts, Jesus appeared to the disciples numerous times during the 40 days after Easter/Passover. After his ascension, the disciples devoted themselves to prayer. Is it possible that Pentecost was their first celebration of the Eucharist in fulfillment of the Lord’s instruction to “do this in remembrance of me”? If so, that was one powerful epiclesis, i.e., invocation of the Holy Spirit!

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