Happy Pentecost: The Birthday of the Church
Museum of the Bible’s Easter Morning window by Louis Comfort Tiffany depicts Jesus in a white robe standing outside among flowers and trees on the morning of his resurrection, his head illuminated by a halo. This stunning stained glass window reflects a milestone in biblical history. The four stained glass windows that accompany Easter Morning show the four Evangelists, foretelling what’s to come: the church.
On May 28, 2023, the Catholic Church will celebrate the end of the Easter season with Pentecost, which occurs 50 days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and 10 days after his ascension into heaven. The date of Pentecost shifts because Easter is a movable feast without a fixed date, so Pentecost can fall anywhere between May 10 and June 13.
Before Jesus ascended, he promised to send his disciples an advocate, the Holy Spirit, to give them understanding and direction. Pentecost was the fulfillment of that promise, making it one of the most important feast days of the year as it celebrates the beginning of the church and its mission to the world.
Figure 1: This book of prayers was made for young Charles V (1500–1558) after he became king of Spain (1516) and shortly before his election as Holy Roman Emperor (1519). There are 36 pages with images that stress self-sacrifice, humility, and devotion to the Catholic sacraments. This image showcases the Holy Spirit descending on the praying disciples.
In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is the celebration of the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles, Mary, and the first followers of Jesus, who were in the Upper Room. The Bible speaks of a sound like a “strong, driving” wind filling the room, and tongues “as of fire” coming to rest on their heads, allowing them to speak in different languages so they could understand each other.
Figure 2: This image of the dove descending and tongues of fire coming to rest on the disciples is one of 200 illustrations by French artist Gustave Doré in this Catholic Vulgate. Bibles like this one were popular in the late 1800s, often serving as family Bibles.
The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles the gifts necessary to preach the gospel. Jesus had given them instructions to “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). At the first Pentecost, Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached his first homily, explaining how the prophet Joel had foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit. After this sermon, Peter, the first pope, converted three thousand people. For this reason, Pentecost is considered the birthday of the church.
This Sunday, priests in the United States will wear red vestments, symbolic of the burning fire of God’s love and the “tongues as of fire” that descended on the apostles. Other countries commemorate Pentecost differently. In Britain and Ireland, Pentecost is known as White Sunday, or “WhitSunday,” in reference to the white vestments worn by the clergy. The white is symbolic of the dove of the Holy Spirit, which appeared at the baptism of Jesus, and which is the color most catechumens wear on the day of their own baptism.
An Italian Pentecost tradition is to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues. In France, it is tradition to blow trumpets during Mass to recall the sound “as of a driving wind” that filled the room, another reference to the Holy Spirit. In Russia, churches are decorated with flowers and greens to symbolize God’s divine breath coming and renewing all of creation.
Figure 3: In the Russian Orthodox tradition, priests wear green vestments, and the churches are decorated with greenery and flowers. The green represents the Holy Spirit’s gift of new life.
Behind all of these traditions, as well as the stained glass windows, is the biblical story in Acts 2 of the first Pentecost. The Bible’s narrative once again shapes the symbols, the rituals, and even, at times, the colors in our world. This Pentecost, take a moment to focus on the role of the Bible in the celebration of the church’s birthday, and explore more about the Bible’s impact and the rich history of the church on every floor of the museum. Here, there’s always more to the story.
Figure 4: Vatican City, June 9, 2019. Pope Francis celebrates the Pentecost mass in St. Peter's Square.
By Judy Hilovsky, Copywriter and Copyeditor