What Does Pentecost Mean?
If you want the boring definition, Pentecost literally means fifty days. That's because it takes place fifty days after Easter Sunday. While some may dismiss it as just a day to mark the transition from Eastertide to Ordinary Time, Pentecost actually marks the day when the Church truly became the Church. On this day the Apostles received their Baptism by the Holy Spirit, bringing the believers into the life of the Trinity. On this day they took their rightful places as heads of the Church, the Body of Christ, and the Good News began to spread across the known world.
What is Pentecost Sunday?
Pentecost Sunday does mark the end of Eastertide, and we do celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. It always occurs fifty days after Easter Sunday, which makes it a moveable feast based on the date of Easter. It is one of the three major feasts in the Church year, the other two being Easter and Christmas. Many parishes will highlight the day with special vestments - always in red. For the laity, you will often see them wearing red clothing to commemorate the occasion. And in some parishes people will decorate their worship space with red helium balloons, communicating that something is very different about this day.
Where is Pentecost in the Bible?
The easiest answer to where Pentecost is in the Bible is Acts Chapter 2. This is where the main narrative is contained, but the celebration actually goes back much farther. Shavuot, or the Festival of Weeks, is first mentioned in Exodus 34:22, and it signified the conclusion of the wheat harvest. It was observed fifty days following Passover, and is also the traditional date of Moses receiving the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai.
This was a tradition well established by the time of Jesus and His Apostles. They were celebrating Shavuot in light of Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts tells us that on Pentecost Day something like tongues of fire rested upon them, and they were given the ability to speak in different languages. When they were speaking, people from all over the Roman Empire heard their message in words that they could understand, and many were amazed.
Baptism With The Holy Spirit
An astute reader of Scripture will remember the message of John the Baptist that we read every year during Advent. "I baptize you with water for repentance, ... but one who is coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matthew 3:11)" The word Baptize in this concept literally means to immerse. John the Baptist was promising that the followers of Jesus would be filled with the Holy Spirit, which has some significant implications. But what we can see, is that this Holy Spirit Fire can reside in the Christian's heart, having effects on his or her character and abilities.
It is not necessary to have a dramatic experience such as speaking in tongues in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit. St. Paul himself said that there are greater gifts (1 Corinthians 14). In Galatians 5:22-23 St. Paul identifies several "Fruits of the Spirit" - character traits that are given to each and every Christian. These traits are love, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. At times these gifts can be subtle, other times quite obvious. But every Christian is granted them and will grow in them as he or she is in fellowship with the Trinity.
St. Paul also wrote about Gifts of the Spirit, which are distinct from the Fruits. While the Fruits of the Spirit affect a person's character, the Gifts of the Spirit are special abilities for ministry. In this context ministry means serving other people. There are too many gifts to mention here, but the biggest lists can be found in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4:11.
Holy Spirit Baptism as Celebrated in the Liturgy
The Episcopal Church believes in the Holy Spirit and celebrates this great mystery through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. In Baptism, we have both the Baptism in water, as was practiced by John the Baptist and the early Church. Immediately following, the priest annoints the person's head with some consecrated oil saying, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever (Book of Common Prayer page 308)."
More often than not, a person is baptized as an infant, so the Church offers the sacrament of Confirmation in order to make an adult profession of faith. This is more than giving a tesimony however. During the liturgy for Confirmation the Bishop lays hands on the person's head, and prays, "Strengthen, O Lord, your servant ... with your Holy Spirit (Book of Common Prayer, page 309)." Notice the specific language of strengthening with the Holy Spirit. While the gift is given specifically at Baptism, Confirmation is the time when the Christian is strengthened in the Holy Spirit. The experience of The Holy Spirit is so profound and life changing that we can always go deeper.
The Day of Pentecost is something that has it's roots back in the time of Moses. It took on additional significance after Jesus' resurrection, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. The gift of the Holy Spirit is something that continues to this day, because all of us receive it at our Baptism, and it is strengthened at Confirmation. The gift of the Holy Spirit strengthens your character through the Fruits of the Spirit, and gives you abilities to serve others through Spiritual Gifts. To live the Christian life is truly supernatural, because we are all given this great gift of the Holy Spirit.