Pentecost—The second in importance of the great Jewish feasts. The term, adopted from the Greek-speaking Jews (Tob. 2:1; II Mac. 12:32; Josephus, "Ant.", III, x, 6; etc.) alludes to the fact that the feast, known in the Old Testament as "the feast of harvest of the firstfruits" (Exodus 23:16), "the feast of weeks" (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10: 2 Chronicles 8:13), the "day of firstfruits" (Numbers 28:26), and called by later Jews 'asereth or 'asartha (solemn assembly, and probably "closing festival", Pentecost being the closing festival of the harvest and of the Paschal season), fell on the fiftieth day from "the next day after the sabbath" of the Passover (Leviticus 23:11). The interpretation of this passage was early disputed and at the time of Jesus Christ two opinions touching the exact day of the feast were held. Most doctors (and the bulk of the people) understood (on the force of Leviticus 23:7) the sabbath spoken of in verse 11 to be the first day of the unleavened bread, Nisan 15; whereas the Sadducees (later also the Karaites) held that the weekly sabbath falling during the Passover festivities was meant (Talmud, Treat. Menach., x, 1-3; Chagiga, ii, 4). Which opinion is more in accordance with the natural meaning of the passage, we shall leave undecided; the dissent is long since over, all Jews celebrating the Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Nisan 16. As the offering of a sheaf of barley marked the beginning of the harvest season, so the offering of loaves made from the new wheat marked its completion. This is no proof that Pentecost was originally a mere nature-festival; but it shows that the Mosaic legislation had in view an agricultural population, to whose special needs and disposition it was perfectly adapted. Since the close of Biblical times, an entirely new significance, never so much as hinted at in Scripture, has been attached by the Jews to the feast: the Pentecost is held to commemorate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, which, according to Exodus 19:1, took place on the fiftieth day after the departure from Egypt. This view, admitted by several Fathers of the Church (St. Jerome, "Epist.", lxxviii, 12, P.L., XLII, 707; St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus XXXII.12; St. Leo, "De Pent. Serm.", I, P.L., LIV, 400), has passed into some modern Jewish Liturgical books, where the feast is described as "the day of the giving of the Law" (Maimon. More Neb., iii, 41).
In accordance with this interpretation, modern Jews pass the eve in reading the Law and other appropriate Scriptures. Among them the feast lasts two days, a tradition dating from the difficulty which the Jews of the Diaspora found in ascertaining exactly what day the month begins in Palestine (Talmud, Treat. Pesach., lii, 1; Rosh hashsh., v, 1). On the day of Pentecost no servile work was allowed (Leviticus 23:21). The oblation consisted of two loaves of leavened bread made from two-tenths of an ephah (about seven quarts and a fifth) of flour from the new wheat (Leviticus 23:17; Exodus 24:22). The leavened bread could not be placed on the altar (Leviticus 2:11), and was merely waved (D.V., "lifted"; see OFFERINGS); one loaf was given to the High Priest, the other was divided among the priests who ate it within the sacred precincts. Two yearling lambs were also offered as a peace-offering, and a buck-goat for sin, together with a holocaust of seven lambs without blemish, one calf, and two rams (Leviticus 23:18-19). According to Numbers 28:26-31, the number of victims to be offered in holocaust on that day differs from the above. The Jews of later times regarded the two enactments as supplementary (Jos., "Ant.", III, X, 6; Talmud, Treat. Menach., iv, 2, 5). The feast was an occasion for social and joyful gatherings (Deuteronomy 16:11) and we may infer from the New Testament that it was, like the Passover, attended at Jerusalem by a great homecoming of the Jews from all parts of the world (Acts 2:5-11).
A feast of the universal Church which commemorates the Descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles, fifty days after the Resurrection of Christ, on the ancient Jewish festival called the "feast of weeks" or Pentecost (Exodus 34:22; Deuteronomy 16:10). Whitsunday is so called from the white garments which were worn by those who were baptised during the vigil; Pentecost ("Pfingsten" in German), is the Greek for "the fiftieth" (day after Easter).
Whitsunday, as a Christian feast, dates back to the first century, although there is no evidence that it was observed, as there is in the case of Easter; the passage in 1 Corinthians 16:8 probably refers to the Jewish feast. This is not surprising, for the feast, originally of only one day's duration, fell on a Sunday; besides it was so closely bound up with Easter that it appears to be not much more than the termination of Paschal tide.
That Whitsunday belongs to the Apostolic times is stated in the seventh of the (interpolated) fragments attributed to St. Irenaeus. In Tertullian (On Baptism 19) the festival appears as already well established. The Gallic pilgrim gives a detailed account of the solemn manner in which it was observed at Jerusalem ("Peregrin. Silviae", ed. Geyer, iv). The Apostolic Constitutions (Book V, Part 20) say that Pentecost lasts one week, but in the West it was not kept with an octave until at quite a late date. It appears from Berno of Reichenau (d. 1048) that it was a debatable point in his time whether Whitsunday ought to have an octave. At present it is of equal rank with Easter Sunday. During the vigil formerly the catechumens who remained from Easter were baptized, consequently the ceremonies on Saturday are similar to those on Holy Saturday.
The office of Pentecost has only one Nocturn during the entire week. At Terce the "Veni Creator" is sung instead of the usual hymn, because at the third hour the Holy Ghost descended. The Mass has a Sequence, "Veni Sancte Spiritus" the authorship of which by some is ascribed to King Robert of France. The colour of the vestments is red, symbolic of the love of the Holy Ghost or of the tongues of fire. Formerly the law courts did not sit during the entire week, and servile work was forbidden. A Council of Constance (1094) limited this prohibition to the first three days of the week. The Sabbath rest of Tuesday was abolished in 1771, and in many missionary territories also that of Monday; the latter was abrogated for the entire Church by Pius X in 1911. Still, as at Easter, the liturgical rank of Monday and Tuesday of Pentecost week is a Double of the First Class.
In Italy it was customary to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues; hence in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy Whitsunday is called Pascha rosatum. The Italian name Pascha rossa comes from the red colours of the vestments used on Whitsunday. In France it was customary to blow trumpets during Divine service, to recall the sound of the mighty wind which accompanied the Descent of the Holy Ghost. In England the gentry amused themselves with horse races. The Whitsun Ales or merrymakings are almost wholly obsolete in England. At these ales the Whitsun plays were performed. At Vespers of Pentecost in the Oriental Churches the extraordinary service of genuflexion, accompanied by long poetical prayers and psalms, takes place. (Cf. Maltzew, "Fasten-und Blumen Triodion", p. 898 where the entire Greco-Russian service is given; cf. also Baumstark, "Jacobit. Fest brevier", p. 255.) On Pentecost the Russians carry flowers and green branches in their hands.