July 2016 Print

Pentecost and the Sundays of the Year

by Fr. Christopher Danel

The series of Sundays which follow Pentecost are an extension, subtle and serene, of this mystery which flows into the days of summer and later into those of fall, and we know this period simply as the Time after Pentecost. As Dom Guéranger explains it, the Holy Ghost “wishes to take up His abode within us, and to take our life of regeneration entirely into His own hands. The liturgy of this Time after Pentecost signifies and expresses this regenerated life, which is to be spent on the model of Christ’s and under the direction of His Spirit” (The Liturgical Year, vol. X, p. 4). Therefore, we first examine the source of this sanctification of liturgical time by considering the history and liturgy of Pentecost.

The History of Pentecost

The splendor of the Paschaltide liturgy reaches its conclusion on the fiftieth day (pentekosté), which is the annual commemoration of the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. Among the Hebrews, there was a feast also known as Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). Along with Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), it was one of the three great pilgrimage feasts for which devout souls travelled to the Temple in Jerusalem in accord with the Law, as expressed in several passages of Exodus and Deuteronomy, e.g., “Thrice a year shall all thy males appear before the Lord thy God” (Ex. 23:17). The Holy Family’s participation in these annual pilgrimages is seen in the Gospels, and it is for this reason that such large numbers of pilgrims were in Jerusalem at the times both of the Crucifixion and of the Descent of the Holy Ghost.

The original feast of Pentecost had a dual purpose in the Old Testament and has a close parallel mystically to the Christian feast. It was tied agriculturally to the harvest of the first-fruits, and spiritually to the promulgation of the Law on Mount Sinai, which occurred fifty days after the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. It was therefore a type of completion: first deliverance from bondage (crossing the Red Sea), then the “descent” of the Law from the summit of Sinai to guide them the rest of the way towards the time when the Messias would come. It is thus a prefiguring of the dispensation of the New Covenant: first deliverance from sin (baptism), then the descent of the Holy Ghost from Heaven to guide the Church the rest of the way towards the second coming of the Messias in power and glory. The Christian Pentecost fulfills and surpasses the old one, because as Saint Paul reiterates so clearly, the Spirit is greater than the Law. The Spirit gives life.

At what point was the feast of Pentecost introduced into the liturgical calendar of the Church? Taking into account the close connection between Passover and Pentecost among the Hebrews, the same connection can reasonably be supposed to have been made between Easter and Pentecost (with its superior importance) in Christian worship. There is a reference to Pentecost in the liturgical calendar already in Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians: “But I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost” (I Cor. 16:8). The second century Epistula Apostolorum also attests to the existence of Pentecost in the Catholic liturgy. The Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (†340) recalls in his Life of Constantine that the death of the Emperor occurred on this feast, and calls Pentecost “Omnium festivitatum maximam diem – the greatest day of all feasts,” and the same is confirmed throughout texts of the fourth and fifth centuries. On Pentecost St. John Chrysostom (†407) exclaimed, “Today we have been led to the very source of all good things!” and remarked that such a massive throng of the faithful had gathered for the festal liturgy that his church was bursting at the seams.

The Vigil of Pentecost

The development of the feast was influenced greatly by the practice of conferring baptism at Pentecost for those who had not been baptized at Easter. It was celebrated in a way very similar to that of the Paschal liturgy, with a nocturnal vigil culminating in the festal Mass at dawn. Eventually the Vigil with baptism was transferred to Saturday morning or afternoon, in some places at the hour of Sext and at others at None, and the Mass of the Vigil of Pentecost was thus separated from the Mass of Pentecost proper. The Vigil featured the same series of rites as the Paschal Vigil from the lessons onward (lessons, blessing of the font, litany, Mass), although the lessons did not number twelve as in the ancient Paschal Vigil, but were originally only four, then six. At the same time the Paschal Vigil was reformed under Pope Pius XII, the lessons and font ceremonies of the Vigil of Pentecost were suppressed, leaving in place the Vigil Mass similar to the vigils of other major feasts of the year, such as the Ascension and Christmas.

The Vigil of Pentecost became a day of fast sometime after the fourth century, notwithstanding the ancient prohibition of fasting during Paschaltide. The Leonine Sacramentary of the fifth and sixth centuries lists a series of prayers for the vigil with references to the fast, and the Gelasian Sacramentary of the eighth century contains a collect for the vigil which reads, “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, a new discipline of the spiritual observance of Thy Paraclete, so that our minds, purified by the holy fast, may be made more apt in all things for His gifts.”

The Feast of Pentecost

The Mass for the Day of Pentecost takes some of its parts from Psalm LXVII, Exurgat Deus, which could be called the Pentecost Psalm. The same psalm is used in the Rite of Confirmation, particularly the text “Confirma hoc Deus quod operatus es in nobis—Confirm, O God, what Thou hast wrought in us.” The sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, which carries the sobriquet “the golden sequence,” is attributed to Archbishop Langdon of Canterbury (†1228). His composition replaced an earlier sequence from the tenth century, which was “Sancti Spiritus adsit nobis gratia—May the grace of the Holy Ghost be upon us.”

The Mass contains a special Preface, Communicantes, and Hanc Igitur. The Preface has always been Qui ascendens super omnes cœlos (Who ascending above all the heavens), but its conclusion has undergone some retouching over the centuries. The Leonine and Gelasian Sacramentaries give a conclusion describing the exultation of Pentecost: “Unde lætantes inter altaria tua, Domine virtutum, hostias tibi laudis offerimus per Christum Dominum Nostrum—Therefore, joyful at Thy altar, O God of hosts, we offer Thee sacrifices of praise through Christ Our Lord.” St. Gregory the Great (†604) substituted this conclusion with another one lifted from an Easter preface, which is now used: “Quapropter profusis gaudiis, totus in orbe terrarum mundus exultat—Wherefore does the whole world rejoice with exceeding great joy.” The Communicantes speaks of the innumerable tongues of flame which descended upon the Apostles (innumeris linguis). The Hanc Igitur is the same as the proper text used for Easter, and refers to those reborn through baptism.

In the Medieval period, from at least the twelfth century onward, there were some particular customs in Italy and France associated with the Pentecost Mass. It was the custom in some places to have white doves fly around inside the church during the Mass. The more widespread custom was carried out during the Sequence of the Mass, or sometimes during Terce (i.e., nine o’clock in the morning, when the Holy Ghost descended), at which point red rose petals, various flowers, and sometimes burning wads of flax, were dropped down from the church rafters in a vivid simulation of the tongues of fire. This gave Pentecost the title “Pasqua rosata,” or “Rose Easter” in Italy. For the Papal Liturgy, the shower of rose petals was anticipated to the previous Sunday, when the station Mass was held at the Church of St. Mary of the Martyrs, formerly the Pantheon. At that place, the outpouring of petals from the large, open oculus in the roof provided a particularly brilliant effect. 

The Octave, Ember Days, and Trinity Sunday

The Easter Cycle was originally concluded with the day of Pentecost, bringing the sacred fifty days to their close. In the Apostolic Constitutions, there is a reference to celebrating Pentecost for a whole week, but it was not until the second half of the sixth century that the feast was graced with an Octave in the universal calendar. There may be three reasons for the addition: simply to embellish and honor the feast by this addition, from which several other feasts of the calendar benefitted, and which was certainly due to a feast as important as Pentecost; to make a firmer association with the Easter Mass and its Octave; or to add seven days in honor of the seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost, which is the motive given by Amalarius of Metz (†850).

The ember days of summer were originally assigned to the week after Pentecost since the “fastless” time of Easter would have been past. However, with the addition of the Octave, the ember days were moved to the following week, and it was St. Gregory the Great who moved them back to their primitive and current placement, which led to the unusual penitential-festal character of these days. The Masses are essentially festal, deeply imbued with the character of Pentecost, except for their additional lessons and two minor elements on Ember Saturday, when there is a tract before the Gospel and a Secret which refers clearly to the fast. In some places, the restoration of the ember days to Pentecost week was not adopted, and in other places which did adopt the change, two Masses were then celebrated on those days, one for the Ember Day Mass, the other for the Octave. It was not until the eleventh century, due to the vigorous work of St. Gregory VII (†1085) and Urban II (†1099), that liturgical uniformity was again achieved and all local churches adopted the disposition of Pope St. Gregory with one Mass of the day.

The origin of Trinity Sunday is traced, like so many things, to the Abbey of Cluny, where around 1030 AD, a liturgical feast dedicated to the Holy Trinity began to be celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Cluny’s choice of that particular Sunday was due to the fact that the ancient ember liturgy, as a night vigil, filled both Saturday and Sunday, and once the ember Mass was celebrated earlier on Saturday, it left Sunday with a liturgical void. In some places, a feast of All Saints was inserted, whereas at Cluny a new feast was ingeniously created. Due to the monastery’s vast influence, the feast soon spread. There was some opposition to it, even from several Popes, due to the principle that the entire liturgy, every Mass and every ritual, is directed to the praise and glory of the Triune Godhead. Nevertheless, the feast enjoyed ever-increasing devotion north of the Alps, and the eventual adoption of the feast by the Roman liturgy was due to the long sojourn of the Papal Court in Avignon, and to the French Pope John XXII, who approved it there in 1334.

The Sundays of the Year

The Sundays between Pentecost and Advent were originally grouped into four categories: those after Pentecost, those after Sts. Peter and Paul (29 June), those after St. Lawrence (10 Aug), and those after St. Michael (29 Sept). The Gelasian Sacramentary abandoned this system so that they would all be Post Pentecosten. It lists sixteen interchangeable formulæ (collects, etc.) for them, which would eventually be assigned permanently to the V to XX Sundays. The lessons are those, with few exceptions, given in the eighth century Comes of Murbach. The first five Sundays continue the Catholic Epistles (St. James, St. Peter, St. John), after which begin the Pauline Epistles in sequential order, which reflects the ancient lectio continua arrangement. The Gospels are taken principally from the second half of each of the synoptic Gospels, as the first parts of these had been used in the Sundays after Epiphany.


While the Sundays after Pentecost may be viewed in isolation from each other, a view of the whole season can be had by which the sure and steady living out of the mystery of Pentecost dans les choses quotidiennes, can be profitably seen. Green is the color of the whole season, and it takes its origin from vegetation, evoking that steady stream of lymph in plants which makes them grow from mere seeds into lush, vibrant foliage. In fact, green is the color of Pentecost in the Eastern rites, and the Roman Rite uses it in this season to express this steady and discreet interior action of the Life-giving Spirit in the soul, sanctifying, inspiring, directing, propelling ever forward.