What is Pentecost? 

It is the day on which we celebrate the disciples were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ in front of a large crowd which had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. Jesus had promised that this would happen:

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ (John 14:25).

In The Acts of the Apostles, his second book, Luke describes the scene:  

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4)

The disciple Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, spoke powerfully to the crowd, as a result of which, Luke tells us, 3000 people of different nations and languages were converted to Christ. This day is seen by many Christians as marking the foundation of the Church and the start of its mission to the whole world.

Ascension Day is celebrated forty days after the resurrection, and Pentecost, or Whitsun, is celebrated on the fiftieth day after the resurrection, i.e. ten days after Ascension Day. In Acts 1:5 Luke says it took place ‘not many days’ after the Ascension.

Why is this day referred to as ‘Pentecost’?

Pentecost was a Jewish festival 50 days after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, often referred to by its Greek name, the Greek word ‘peninta’ meaning ‘fifty’. The purpose of this feast was to give thanks for the completion of the grain harvest. The day after which Jesus was crucified was the feast of unleavened bread. 

Why is this day also known as ‘Whitsunday’?

Two explanations exist:

  1. White Sunday, as baptisms were often held (see John 20:19-23) (cf. German weiss = white)
  2. Wit Sunday. Anglo-Saxon word ‘wit’ means ‘understanding’ – as in ‘witless’, meaning ‘lacking understanding’ (cf. German wissen = to know). Christ’s followers were filled with the Holy Spirit who was to teach them.

The Sunday following Whitsunday is Trinity Sunday, the 7th June this year, when there will be a new blog.

A traditional prayer for Pentecost by Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556):

O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth,

 send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love,

 the very bond of peace and al virtues, 

without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee; 

grant us this for thy Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.