What Is Pentecost Sunday (Whitsunday)?
Pentecost Definition and Summary
Pentecost, also known as Whitsunday, celebrates the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 2). Pentecost is celebrated 50 days after Easter. Christian Pentecost differs from the Jewish celebration of the same name.
Prayers: Pentecost Prayers
Basic Facts About Pentecost
Liturgical Color(s): Red
Time of Year: 50 days after Easter
Duration: One day (or an entire octave in older custom)
Celebrates/Symbolizes: The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and the founding of the Church
Alternate Names: Whitsunday
Scriptural References: Acts of the Apostles, especially Acts 2:1-11
Pentecost, the 50th and final day of the Easter season, celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in the book of Acts, ushering in the beginning of the Church. 50 Days after Jesus' resurrection (and ten days after His Ascension), the apostles were gathered together, confused, scared, and contemplating their future purpose and mission.
On Pentecost, a flame rested upon each apostle (but did not harm them), and they began to speak in tongues (languages) by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus Pentecost is a time for many Catholics and other Christians to celebrate two important realities: the Holy Spirit and the Church.
Pentecost has long been a very important feast in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches because it celebrates the official beginning of the Church. It is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Church, second only in importance to Pascha (Easter). Pentecost always falls on a Sunday, fifty days after Easter Sunday (inclusive of Easter Sunday), and occurs during mid-to-late Spring in the Northern hemisphere, and mid-to-late autumn in the Southern hemisphere. The summer season of Ordinary Time begins on the Monday immediately following Pentecost Sunday.
Pentecost is also the Greek name for Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), falling on the 50th day of Passover. It was during the Feast of Weeks that the first fruits of the grain harvest were presented (see Deuteronomy 16:9). New Testament references to Pentecost likely refer to the Jewish feast and not the Christian feast, which gradually developed during and after the Apostolic period.
In English-speaking countries, Pentecost is also known as Whitsunday. The origin of this name is unclear, but may derive from the Old English word for "White Sunday," referring to the practice of baptizing converts clothed in white robes on the Sunday of Pentecost. In the English tradition, new converts were baptized on Easter, Pentecost, and All Saints' Day, primarily for pragmatic purposes: people went to church these days. Alternatively, the name Whitsunday may have originally meant "Wisdom Sunday," since the Holy Spirit is traditionally viewed as the Wisdom of God, who bestows wisdom upon Christians at baptism. In other parts of the world, Pentecost has other names, including "Green Sunday" in the Ukraine and "Green Holiday" in Poland. These names are derived from Pentecost customs that involve taking green plants into homes and churches as symbols of new life. These customs also may hearken back to the harvest festival themes of the Jewish Pentecost.
As with the term Pascha, in Pentecost Christians borrowed a Jewish term and applied it to their own festivals. Tertullian (third century) knew of Christian Pentecost, and the Apostolic Constitutions (fouth century) speak of the Pentecost feast lasting a week. In the Western Church the vigil of Pentecost became second only to the Easter Vigil in importance. In the West, Pentecost eventually became a Sunday set aside for baptisms. Pentecost was not marked with an octave (an eight-day celebration) until a later date, although now that practice has been largely abandoned. For the most part, Pentecost is now celebrated for only one day in Western churches. Traditionally, the Sundays between Pentecost and Advent have been designated "Sundays After Pentecost." However, this has been dropped in the West, although it continues in the East. The date of Pentecost is determined based on the date of Easter, and since Western churches calculate Easter differently than Orthodox Christians, usually Western and Eastern Christians celebrate Pentecost on different dates. Using the Western Easter calculation, the earliest possible date for Pentecost is May 10, and the latest possible date is June 13.
Worship and Prayer Resources
Traditions, Symbols & Typology
Traditions: Baptizing new converts, red vestments and linens, scattering rose leaves from church ceilings (symbolizes tongues of fire falling)
Symbols: Dove (symbol of the Holy Spirit), lighthouse, mountain/rock, the Blessed Virgin Mary, any symbol of the Church (like the Ark), fire (symbol of the Holy Spirit/tongues of fire)
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Why haven't I heard of Pentecost? In many evangelical churches that do not have a developed liturgical year, Pentecost is an ignored Church holiday (ranking up there with Lent and Epiphany). Nonetheless, many evangelicals are discovering the Church year. Pentecost is a perfect time for Christians of all denominations to focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in their individual lives and in their worshipping communities while commemorating the beginning of the Church some 2000 years ago. In many evangelical churches in the United States, the secular Mother's Day holiday is probably celebrated more frequently than the ancient and revered Christian Pentecost feast.
2. Is discussing the gifts and charisms of the Spirit appropriate for Pentecost? Certainly. In fact, many charismatic Catholics emphasize Pentecost as a time for personal and corporate spiritual renewal. Many modern Catholics are suspicious of claims of miracles and spiritual gifts because materialist science has taught us that they are impossible. However, the Church has never ceased believing in these charisms. The Holy Spirit's operations both individually and corporately (in the Church) are often misunderstood. Catholic and liturgical churches have never disavowed the works of the Holy Spirit, nor should we cease from praying for the Holy Spirit's guidance and illumination. Catholics see the Holy Spirit working in a variety of ways: through baptism, charity, prayer, ordination, faith, exorcism, service, etc. Thus, just because one is not dancing in the aisles at Mass, or speaking an unknown language, doesn't mean the Holy Spirit is absent. For Catholics, living one's vocation in love is evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit; one need not be showy or emotional.
3. Are Catholics Pentecostal? The term Pentecostal is often used as a synonym for "charismatic," although we must note that generally the term "Pentecostal" refers to American Christian groups founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that emphasize speaking in tongues, healings, and spontaneous worship. Some of these groups even deny the Trinity, and baptize in the name of Jesus. Catholic and Apostolic Christians cannot claim the title "Pentecostal" in this sense. However, the word "Pentecostal," in a generic sense, just means "relating to Pentecost," i.e. having the Holy Spirit and the Church. Thus, those who are baptized and confirmed in the Church are, by definition, Pentecostals. However, most self-professed Pentecostals would deny that Catholics have a claim to this title.
This page written by David Bennett.