Image: Jean II Restaut, Pentecote, 1732 [Public Domain]
The feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles after Jesus’ Ascension, is a perfect ending to the Triduum and Easter season. Understanding the Pentecost of the Old Testament can help us to enter more fully into this feast of the New Covenant. This feast, Shavuot in Hebrew (Pentecost is the Greek name), was a Jewish festival held yearly celebrating both the wheat harvest and God’s gift of the law in the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
The Book of Exodus is full of events that foreshadow the work of Christ, both in his earthly life and in the life of the Church. In Exodus God rescues Israel from slavery to Pharaoh while Christ, in his Passion and Resurrection, rescues his Church from slavery to sin, death, and the devil. The Passover foreshadows the Last Supper and the gift of the Eucharist. The crossing of the Red Sea prefigures the gift of baptism. And the giving of the Torah (the law) at Mount Sinai foreshadows the giving of the Holy Spirit.
The gift of the Ten Commandments is only one of many symbolic actions that Moses mediates at Mount Sinai. But they are all centered on uniting the one, true God with his people. Easter begins with the victory of our Savior, which we celebrate for 50 days, and ends with a celebration of being intimately united to God in a way Israel had never experienced: we remember God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the early Church at Pentecost, and to each one of us at our baptism.
The connection between the gifts of the Law and of the Spirit is a classic example of what St. Augustine so elegantly calls “the New Testament being hidden in the Old, and Old Testament being unveiled in the New” (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 129). We can understand each historic event, and the gift of both the Law and Holy Spirit in our own lives, better when we look at each Pentecost in the light of the other.
Delighting in the Law
We know the Holy Spirit is given to unite Christians to Christ and the Father. On Pentecost Peter tells the inhabitants of Jerusalem that through baptism they “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38–39). The promise Peter refers to is the Holy Spirit, which is given to those God invites into communion. Likewise, the Holy Spirit was given to help the apostles (and all Christians) in their mission. Jesus tells the apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Receiving the Holy Spirit and being Christ’s witnesses go hand-in-hand.
If the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of the Law, then we can apply these two (example not exhaustive) purposes to God’s gift of the Torah. God had already established a covenant relationship with Israel before giving the Law. Therefore, the Law was a means for them to remain in that relationship and was key to the mission God had for them. They were meant to be a nation set apart so that they could witness to the one, true God.
The Jews valued the Law as a gift from God that communicated his will to them and marked them uniquely as his people. The Psalmist can earnestly say, “Blessed is the man… [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2). If a righteous Jew is one who meditates on the gift of the Law, how much more should we as Catholics meditate on the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Capable of heroic love
The Law provided moral guidance to Israel. The Psalmist says, “Great peace have those who love thy law; nothing can make them stumble” (Psalm 119:165). The Psalms are full of images of the path of righteousness versus the path of evil. Stumbling is sinning. Following—or loving—the Law is a means to avoid sin. Likewise, the Holy Spirit provides moral guidance. However, the Spirit is an internal guide whereas the Law is an external guide. That is why there is still a place for the Ten Commandments in the Church. The Catechism says, “The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them” (CCC 2068). The non-baptized and all Christians, especially when we are in a state of sin, need this external guidance. It is often too easy to justify what we want.
At the same time, an internal force is more powerful than an external one. Over and over God tells Israel through the prophets that he wishes to write upon their human hearts of flesh, not their stony hearts. Interestingly enough, the Ten Commandments were inscribed on tablets of stone (see Exodus 24:12). Ezekiel prophesies that God will “… put a new spirit within them; [He] will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). Laws written upon stone, even though they have a place in the Church until Christ’s second coming, are not enough.
The Old Testament demanded that the Jews love God and neighbor, and even demanded that Israel love God with their whole selves (see Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:4-7). But Jesus demands that his Church—each one of us—love as he loved: a self-sacrificing, self-emptying love. This is impossible to do with just the Law; it often seems impossible even with the Holy Spirit. But God also gives his Church saints to show us that with the Holy Spirit heroic love really is possible.
On this coming Pentecost Sunday, let us thank God for the gifts of the Law and the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that they may continue to provide us moral guidance, unite us more closely to him, and strengthen us in his service. And may we have hope that under the instruction of the Spirit of God we can imitate Christ in all things.