Pentecost comes from the Greek pentekoste, which means “fiftieth.” The ancient Jewish feast of Pentecost (as it is occasionally called in the Greek Old Testament) is also called the Feast of Weeks or of First Fruits, in Hebrew, Shavuot. In the year of Jesus’ passion, this was also 50 days after the Resurrection (more or less) and was the occasion of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. The Ascension had taken place forty days after the Resurrection, and Pentecost followed a nine-day period of prayer and interior preparation for this event by the apostles, in the Upper Room, the Cenacle, in Jerusalem.
Holy Scripture and the Church’s liturgical calendar alike rejoice in numerology, the symbolism of numbers. Forty is a period of preparation: the Hebrews were forty years in the desert before they came to the Promised Land; Jesus, like Moses and Elijah before key moments of their missions, spent forty days in the desert in preparation for his public ministry; we have forty days of Lent. Fifty is associated with completion and eternity: the fifty days of Eastertide represent, in a sense, the end of the story, the “happily ever after,” as well as the period between Easter and Pentecost.
Numerical symbolism can be more powerful and persistent than the details of the calendar. Lent originally started on the First Sunday of Lent, this being so we could count forty days over the six weeks of the season (well, strictly accurately, it comes to forty-two). Since the extension back to Ash Wednesday (this never happened in the Ambrosian Rite of Milan), the length of Lent now comes to forty days only if you don’t count the Sundays. In any case, the Church calls Lent Quadragesima, from the Latin for “forty.” (The word Lent is simply an Old English word for “spring.”)
More poetic license is called for with the Season of Septuagesima, the “pre-Lent” season found with the traditional Latin Mass, which treats each week before the First Sunday of Lent as if it were ten days long: Septuagesima (“Seventieth”) Sunday is followed by Sexagesima (“Sixtieth”) Sunday and Quinquagesima (“Fiftieth”) Sunday, a countdown in anticipation of Quadragesima, the start of Lent. The period of seventy days recalls the seventy years of the ancient Jews’ exile in Babylon.
After Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost, and the feasts connected with them—notably Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi—are like a chain of consequences depending on Easter. Importantly, just as the joyful season of Christmas traditionally extended longer than the penitential season of Advent, so the season of Easter extends longer than Lent.
In the liturgical reform of the 1960s, the drive to simplify the liturgy led not only to the abolition of the pre-Lent season, but also to the reduction of the lengths of the seasons of Easter and of Christmas. Christmastide in the former calendar continues until Candlemas, the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord or the Purification of Our Lady (it is both), on February 2. In the reformed calendar, it ends with Epiphany (on January 6, unless Epiphany has been moved to a Sunday). Eastertide used to continue until Trinity Sunday, another week after Pentecost; in the reform, it ends with Pentecost.
What is less well known is what happened to the feast of Pentecost itself—not in the liturgical reform after Vatican II in 1969, but before Vatican II, in 1955. Holy Week was reformed in 1955, and today, celebrations of the traditional Latin Mass use either the post-1955 rites or the pre-1955 ones. This reform also affected Pentecost, and especially the Vigil of Pentecost, Whitsun Eve, because this had been like a mini-Easter Vigil: an echo of Easter.
It was a vigil in the sense that, just like the Easter Vigil, a service of readings had originally preceded a Mass at dawn, as opposed simply to a Mass on the day before a feast. The pre-1955 Roman Missal had twelve readings for the Easter Vigil and gave the Vigil of Pentecost six. During both, baptisms would originally have taken place; at both, water for baptisms is blessed, and the Easter Candle lit.
This kind of nighttime vigil came in time to be celebrated earlier, during the previous day, which meant that another Mass had to be composed for the day itself. It follows that some of these very ancient vigil Masses are older than the Mass of the day: the vigil wasn’t added to the feast, but the other way around.
The same phenomenon can be seen with Ember Saturdays. These take place four times a year and are again services of readings (four readings, in this case), followed by what was originally a dawn Mass. Later, they came to be celebrated during the day of Saturday, and an extra Sunday Mass had to be composed; these Sunday Masses have the same Gospel as the Ember Saturday. The Ember Saturday readings were the occasion not of baptisms, but of ordinations.
It is impossible to do justice to the history of these liturgical days without overwhelming the reader with details, but the Ember Days at least survive in the traditional Mass as celebrated today, and in some form can be celebrated in the reformed calendar as well. As with many things in the liturgy, their original function is partly displaced, but it also survives in part and adds a kind of background to its current function. Ember Saturday follows Ember Wednesday and Ember Friday, and they lend a penitential character to the week, to sanctify each season of the year.
One of the Ember Weeks is the week that follows Pentecost: “Whit Week.” Unlike the other Ember Days, the liturgical color is white, not violet, but it still gives us a moment of penance, or at least of thoughtfulness—not, in this case, so much by way of preparation, but of gratitude, and receptivity to the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is recalled in the feast of Pentecost.
God sends us his Spirit in abundance; it is up to us to receive the Spirit with an open heart. Receiving the Spirit is not just a matter of being well disposed at a particular moment—at our confirmation, for example—but throughout our lives. We have a special liturgical space to renew this receptivity every year in Pentecost week.
The ancient liturgical calendar was simplified in the reform after Vatican II. There are far more “green” days—days without a particular feast, fast, or liturgical season—than before. By contrast, the ancient calendar is a roller coaster of feasting and fasting, of periods of preparation and times of rejoicing. The rigorous ancient fasting regime is not applicable, by canon law, even to those Catholics who attend the traditional Mass today, but the requirements of the 1917 Code of Canon Law (which gives one version of this) look less daunting in light of today’s fashion for “intermittent fasting” for health. It seems this kind of thing may be humanly possible after all.
What is certainly true is that we should take as seriously as possible the Church’s seasons and feasts, which can even in their more simplified forms be too easily forgotten. The joy of Easter makes sense after a period of penitential preparation; the Holy Spirit will bless most abundantly those who pay attention to the liturgy of the fifty days leading to Pentecost.