The Mystery of Pentecost

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Giotto, Pentecost (Scrovegni (or Arena) Chapel, Padua)


Once again we turn to Giotto, who helps put a ‘human face’ on a supernaturally-charged event. As we observed with his fresco depicting the Ascension of Jesus, Giotto’s Pentecost painting evidences the influence of medieval and Eastern Orthodox iconography (e.g., the gold-leaf halos). Yet, his work distinctively moved away from a primary absorption with portraying aspects of the eternal so as to display an appreciation for daily human life and activity. One mark of this is his employment of architectural perspective in his composition of the scene. In addition, each of the faces in this Scrovegni Chapel fresco are recognizably distinct from one another, with some of them reflecting a genuine regard for individual personality and temperament.

Here we can also notice Giotto’s attention to the biblical text. This scene portraying the gift of the Holy Spirit follow’s Luke rather than John. In John’s Gospel, on the evening of the day of the discovery of his Resurrection – the Risen Jesus enters the private room where the disciples are hiding fearfully behind a locked door. He breathes on them his Holy Spirit and implies that his Ascension has already occurred.

Luke, as Giotto faithfully portrays, describes the disciples being gathered together 50 days after the Resurrection on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. As Luke reports in the last two verses of his Gospel, after witnessing Jesus’ Ascension the disciples “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” Luke then commences his second book, Acts, with a parallel account of Jesus’ Ascension, and the selection process of Matthias as a replacement for the traitor, Judas. Having returned joyfully to Jerusalem, the disciples have been visiting the Temple daily, where they blessed and worshipped God in a public setting.

Luke’s Pentecost assembly differs markedly from John’s account of the fearful disciples on the afternoon of the first day of the new week, forty nine days before. For on Pentecost, into their midst and visibly upon their heads, came the Holy Spirit filling each of them with its power and presence.

Many visitors to Jerusalem for the great feast became aware of what had occurred, and were perplexed, marveling at the unexpected spectacle of how each of them heard the men from the north country speak in their own separate and distinct languages. The legacy of the tower of Babel had been overcome.

Peter quickly helped account for what was happening in light of Scriptures familiar to those gathered, which were fulfilled in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection. God was now doing a new thing, yet something promised long before.

How contrary to the spirit of Jesus’ ‘high priestly prayer, in John 17, and to the witness to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is our frequent experience of the Church throughout the world in our present day. Despite moving words centered on unity and a commonality of mission that we hear and recite in the baptismal rite, we are more often confronted with evidence of difference and division among Christians of varying denominations and cultural backgrounds. Perhaps it is because we let our own concepts of our mission and ministries take precedence over our awareness of and belief in the primacy of Christ’s continuing mission and ministry.

And so, we forget to marvel at what came about through the embodied presence of God. A divinely appointed and inspired country rabbi, who had recruited 12 unlikely followers, met persecution and a tragic death at the hands of a corrupt earthly empire. Yet, in the power of the Holy Spirit, over the course of a few centuries he transformed a sizable portion of the known world into the New Israel, his beloved community and family.


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