Pentecost: Western Christians embrace Holy Spirit’s descent, more, with ancient feast

receiving oil on forehead, pentecost

A girl receives oil on her forehead on Pentecost Sunday in England. Photo by Marcin Marzur, via Catholic Church England and Wales, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, MAY 19: Today, the ancient feast of Pentecost is marked with red drapery and vestments, symbols of the Holy Spirit, processions and holy sacraments. Traditionally, Pentecost falls seven weeks after the Christian Easter.

In Christian tradition, Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, women and other followers of Jesus, giving them the ability to speak in many languages for the purpose of spreading the Word of God. In this manner, some Christians regard Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.”

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS—This year, Pentecost is observed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church on June 23, as Pascha (Easter) was celebrated weeks after the Western Christian Easter.


According to the Book of Acts and Christian tradition: Approximately 120 followers of Christ were gathered on the morning that the Pentecost took place, in the Upper Room. Then, a roar of wind came into the room, and tongues of fire descended upon those in the room. With the gift of the tongues of fire, those gathered believed evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit; they began speaking many different languages. Peter proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophesy.

When the group left the Upper Room, a crowd had gathered. While some accused the followers of Christ of sputtering drunken babble, Peter corrected them and declared that an ancient prophesy had been fulfilled. When the crowds asked what they could do, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized—which thousands did.

As is stated by Catholic Pentecost (Whitsunday), with Christmas and Easter, ranks among the great feasts of Christianity. It commemorates not only the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Disciples, but also the fruits and effects of that event: the completion of the work of redemption, the fullness of grace for the Church and its children, and the gift of faith for all nations.


Pentecost services in the Western Christian Church often involve red flowers, vestments and banners, all representing the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire. Trumpets and brass ensembles may depict the sound of the “mighty wind” in a musical manner. There is even an old tradition of Holy Ghost holes in the roofs of churches, so that the Holy Spirit could “descend” upon the congregation; at Pentecost, the holes were decorated and a dove was lowered into the church. In Italy, rose petals scattered from above represent the fiery tongues; in parts of England, Whit Fairs and Morris dancing were commonplace on Whitsunday, or Pentecost.

Trinity Sunday: Western Christians revere Trinity, Orthodox mark Pentecost

SUNDAY, JUNE 11: White banners are draped and vestments shine as a sign of purity as Western Christian churches worldwide celebrate Trinity Sunday. Note: In the Eastern Christian Church, Trinity Sunday is observed on the Sunday of Pentecost. A culmination of the Nativity, Epiphany, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost, Trinity Sunday calls to mind the role that each member of the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—play in Christianity.

Many Christians are surprised to learn that the original writers of the New Testament did not use the term “Trinity” as it appears in mainline Christianity today. While the three elements of divinity, God and Christ and Holy Spirit, were a part of the faith from its early years, the famous theologian Tertullian (who lived and wrote in Africa) is widely credited as introducing the first full analysis of the Trinity in the early 3rd century. The doctrine wasn’t formalized among Christian leaders until the fourth century.

For centuries, church leaders argued that the Trinity was honored every Sunday. But, in the 12th century, Thomas Becket declared that the day of his consecration should be an annual festival in honor of the Holy Trinity. The observance spread through Western Christianity, and was placed in the general calendar in the 14th century.

There is, perhaps, nothing more central to the creed of the Christian faith—and yet, so elusive, in comprehension of it—than the Holy Trinity. Through the centuries, countless saints have attempted to teach about the Trinity. Among the most famous was a three-leaf clover that tradition says was used by St. Patrick.


On this one Sunday each year, many Christians around the world recite the Athanasian Creed (read it here). Some bake cloverleaf rolls to reflect the Trinity, or set the table with a centerpiece of triple-leaf flowers. For a Catholic perspective or to read Pope John Paul II’s writings on the Holy Trinity, go to

Pentecost: Christians in red (and green) celebrate Holy Spirit’s descent

SUNDAY, JUNE 8: The world’s 2 billion Eastern and Western Christians join in celebrating the ancient festival of Pentecost today, recalling the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the followers of Jesus. Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter Sunday. Another name for the feast, particularly in England and steeped in history, is Whit Sunday (from White Sunday, for the numerous baptisms that traditionally took place on Pentecost Sunday).

Prior to the advent of Christianity, the date of Pentecost was widely observed as Shavuot— and in fact, it was because of Shavuot that the followers of Jesus were gathered in the Upper Room, on the day that would become known as Pentecost in the Christian Church. Shavuot is still celebrated by Jews today. It was during this festival that the Apostles, Virgin Mary and other followers of Jesus would receive the Holy Spirit.

Did you know? Baptisms have been tradition on Pentecost Sunday for centuries, as Christians believe the followers of Jesus were baptized by the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room on Pentecost.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts that when the followers were gathered in one room, a sound like rushing wind came from heaven, filling the entire house; tongues of fire descended upon each of the Apostles. Suddenly, they began to speak in multiple languages—so that they could preach in many lands. In many American churches, Pentecost will be described as “the birthday of the church.”


Whether Eastern or Western Christian, the feast of Pentecost is a rich, meaningful and colorful event. Orthodox churches are often decorated with greenery and flowers—similar to the Jewish tradition for Shavuot—and the feast lasts a full three days. (Find more at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) The Afterfeast of Pentecost continues for one week.

In Western churches, “seeing red” is a bit of an understatement—priests, ministers, choir members and even congregation members often wear the color red, reflecting the joy of the fire of the Holy Spirit. (Get a Catholic perspective from Global Catholic Network.) Red banners are hung from walls and ceilings, and the brass ensembles provide music today, in audio representation of the “mighty wind” that filled the Upper Room on Pentecost.

Did you know? During the Middle Ages, cathedrals in Western Europe were given Holy Ghost holes—small openings in the roof—so that the Holy Spirit could descend upon the congregation. At Pentecost, the Holy Ghost holes were decorated with flowers, and in some regions, dove figures were lowered through the holes while the story of Pentecost was being read.

Across the Christian community, Pentecost is among the most ancient of feasts: Paul noted its celebration and prominence among Christians in the 1st century CE. (Wikipedia has details.)


As crowds pour into church for Pentecost Sunday services today, many congregations must face a new reality: nationally, one in five Catholic parishes does not have a resident priest. What’s more, the average age of priests is 63, and seminary enrollment isn’t growing. (Read the story from USA Today.) Meanwhile, America’s Catholic population is, in fact, on the rise. While the number of Catholic priests in America has dropped 33 percent since 1975, America’s Catholic population has risen a whopping 43 percent during the same time period.

In response to the people’s need for more priests, the Vatican has asked an advisory board of bishops to gather in Rome for a summit addressing the topic this October.