Pentecost, Shavuot, and the overlap of the Christian and Jewish traditions

Icon-PentecostI was working on my homily that I would be giving on Pentecost Sunday and doing what I usually do when I am preparing homilies… procrastinating on the Internet.  So while browsing Busted Halo’s offerings, I noticed that fellow blogger Monica Rozenfeld posted something on the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

As I’ve mentioned before, this past summer I worked as a chaplain in a New York hospital along side two rabbinical students.  Having that experience gave me an even deeper appreciation for just how Jewish our Christian faith really is, especially the Catholic faith.  All of this makes sense if you think about it… but, truth be told, until my theological studies and my experience this summer, I hadn’t really thought about it.

For example, our Eucharistic celebration is a direct outgrowth of the temple sacrifices performed at the Jerusalem temple in ancient Israel.  The baldacchino seen in many pre-Vatican II churches (most notably in St. Peter’s Basilica) is a direct tie to the tent the ancient Israelites used to carry around the Ark of the Covenant.  And when the Greeks wanted to translate the festival of Shavuot into their language, they called it Pentecost.

Shavuot is a festival that happens fifty days after Passover in order to celebrate the event in which God gave the Torah to Moses… in other words, the event in which God gave his word to the Jewish people in the form of text.  Christians, on the other hand, celebrate Pentecost fifty days after what we consider to be our Passover: Easter Sunday; fifty days days after the resurrection, the word of God was given again, except this time it was not given as written text, but as the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the believers.

To celebrate Pentecost after all of the masses, we had parish gatherings that included cake… which was very nice.  But I do have to say that after reading Monica’s piece about how the Jewish people celebrate their Pentecost, I was filled with what a Paulist who works with different faith traditions would call a “holy envy.”  Our celebration of Pentecost did not go on all night and there were certainly no Catholic self-defense classes. I mean, when we Catholic think of self-defense, it usually involves debating a Thomistic view of philosophy over a Kantian view.  In any event, we Catholics typically do not celebrate this day in any manner that would inspire Todd Phillips to write yet another buddy movie.

But the degree of overlap between Shavuot and Pentecost has served as a good moment for me to reflect.  What am I doing with the word of God in my life, written or otherwise?  How much do I pick up that particular word, whether the book happens to be laying on a library shelf or beating somewhere between my lungs?  And how often do I celebrate the reception of that gift?  All I know is that learning more about the Jewish roots of my Catholic faith has helped me to push these questions further.

Father Tom Gibbons was ordained a Paulist priest in 2012. Prior to becoming a priest, he spent time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix, AZ, working with immigrants in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. He's also worked as a graphic designer and web developer, serving nonprofits like Success For All Foundation, Baltimore City Head Start, and Catholic Relief Services. He previously wrote a blog entitled “Kicking and Screaming” for Busted Halo. After serving as a deacon at Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Father Tom was sent to St. Peter’s Church in Toronto, where he first served as Associate Pastor and then as the Parish Administrator. In 2016, he produced a documentary on the founder of the Paulist Fathers, entitled “Isaac Hecker and the Journey of Catholic America” – featuring celebrity voices of Martin Sheen, Matt McCoy, and Bob Gunton. Father Tom is currently at work on a new documentary investigating the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church in California with the film “Junipero Serra: Statue of Limitations,” scheduled for release in 2022. In addition to his work as Vice President of Paulist Productions, Father Tom also performs pastoral work at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Los Angeles, CA.