What is your favorite way to celebrate Pentecost? Like most American Catholics, our pilgrims had nothing to respond besides: "Go to Sunday Mass, like usual."
Pentecost is a huge Christian Feast! The prayers of the Mass call it the Church's "birthday"! Did you know that the Church, as with Easter, gives us the chance to celebrate a Vigil Mass with an extended set of readings, like the Easter Vigil?
Pentecost is also one of the three Jewish feasts for which Jesus, like any Jew in proximity to Jerusalem, would make a journey up to the Holy City. In our day, albeit with no Temple, Jews still go up to Jerusalem in droves. As for us, it is an important occasion for them to keep vigil!
Last Saturday evening, we took a couple hours to celebrate this solemn Pentecost Vigil Mass, rich with passages from the Pentateuch and the Prophets. The mystery of Emmaus, that first Breaking of the Bread, was itself a prelude to Pentecost. At Emmaus, sadness turned into joy; whereas in the Upper Room, fear was changed into daring.
During our Mass, we invoked the Holy Spirit's power upon the Church, the world, our own hearts, and many other intentions. After dishes and dances, we went up to the Holy City of Jerusalem to share in the Jewish custom of keeping an all-night vigil of study, prayer, and fellowship. What a grace it was to be able to go and witness firsthand the Jewish people celebrating this feast during which the Holy Spirit came down upon Mary and the Apostles!
On this day, the Jews celebrate the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. “Torah” means "teaching," but usually refers to the first five books of the Bible, or the Mosaic Law, as well as its commentaries and interpretations. The Torah binds the Israelites to God and God to the Israelites, “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” (Ex 6:7).
The traditional observance of the feast includes a pilgrimage up to Jerusalem in order to stay up all night praying and studying the Torah. Before the morning service, the Jewish people wash themselves in a ritual bath to prepare for a solemn reading of the Torah. Additionally, many Jews gather at the Western Wall at dawn as a final preparation.
Upon arriving in Jerusalem, we began our night study at the house of a Jewish friend, Udi, to listen to his wisdom. It was a taste for us of the special way in which the Jewish tradition of study dives into the meaning of Scriptures. Udi quoted Scripture, asked us thought provoking questions, and also read us readings from the Talmud, the Jewish oral tradition. One specific story that he shared with us focused on Moses receiving the Torah of Mt. Sinai.
Moses climbed up Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and found the angels arguing with God to dissuade him from giving this most precious gift to man: "What is man that you keep him in mind, mortal man that you should care for him?" Moses asked them what was written and one by one they went through the Ten Commandments, and each of them turned out, in fact, to be applicable to man, not to angels!
The Jews considers themselves unworthy of the wondrous gift of the Torah. While the Law is hard, when God gave it to the People, they said "We will do and we will hear" which, many scholars say, means "We will first obey the law, and then we'll try to understand it." Udi thus laid out the dilemma of whether or not the Torah was forced upon the Jewish People, since they committed to it before taking stock of what they were getting themselves into.
Similarly, Udi went on, we are created without choosing to be created. In both the case of being created and in the case of receiving God's Law, we can subsequently make a free choice each day either to welcome God's gift of life and love, or to follow the serpent and worship idols. In both the story of Creation and the giving of the Torah, the people involved were not ready for God’s gift. Shortly after receiving it, they broke their promise to God; Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, and the Israelites built and worshipped the golden calf as an idol.
At midnight, we thanked Udi for his thought-provoking words and followed him from his house to the most ancient part of Jerusalem, the Old City. The alleys and plazas were crawling with Jews wearing their Sabbath best, socializing and walking from synagogue to synagogue. It was inspiring to see so many Jews sacrificing comfort to prepare themselves to accept the Torah, the gift of God's law.
We made our way in to the stone walls of Mount Zion, bumping our way through the throngs of Jews to venerate David's Tomb, located directly below the Upper Room. Udi's teaching remained on our hearts and minds as we applied it to our Christian Pentecost celebration. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was given to the Apostles signifying the initiation of the Church and the new covenant, much like the gift of the Torah initiated the Israelites as a chosen people of God’s covenant.
In the middle of the night, we took a break for sachlav, a favorite Arab hot orchid drink, and then roamed the silent streets of the Christian quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. We stopped outside the Syrian church of St. Mark, a second possible location of the Upper Room. Together we meditated on the story of Pentecost as recorded in the second chapter of Acts of the Apostles and on other occasions in Scripture where Christ gave us the Spirit.
Around 3am, we moved deeper into the quiet Christian Quarter to enter the Holy Sepulchre just as the doors opened. We climbed the tiny stairwell up to Calvary, knelt down, and read together the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus bows his head and gives over the Spirit (Jn 19:30). We spent an hour of personal time taking advantage of the relative quiet in this ever-chaotic, amazing labyrinth of a church.
As dawn approached, we followed the crowd of Jews to witness their main event - morning prayer at the Western Wall. The huge plaza was packed wall-to-wall with thousands of Jews murmuring their praises. The all-nighter had slipped by so quickly!
Next, it was time for coffee, bread, cheese, and dates. After our breakfast, we headed to Mt. Zion and stopped by Dormition Abbey. Here, we were able to connect Mary's presence and relationship with the Holy Spirit to our previous meditation on Pentecost. We had reserved the "crypt" of the Upper Room for our Pentecost Mass (does that make it the ground floor?). We stepped in and, as if on cue, a dove flew through the chapel!
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Thanks for tuning in. Loved ones, even though we haven't been texting and calling, we've been thinking of and praying for you all!