Laborers in the Fields, First Fruits, and Torah…
… I Will Write My Law in Their Hearts.
From a liturgical and spiritual standpoint, this is a very big week! As the Easter Season comes to a close, Pentecost lifts us to the epitome of spiritual richness and maturity. This year, the Holy Father has designated a new feast for the liturgical calendar: the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church. This is actually one of the most ancient of Christian devotions to the Blessed Virgin, but now it is installed on the General Roman Calendar as an annual Memorial placed on the day after Pentecost. It highlights Mary’s presence in the Mystery of Christ and her relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Mary, Mother of the ChurchThe March 24, 2018, Congregation for Divine Worship Decree describes Mary as a caring guide to the emerging Church. She had already begun “her mission in the Upper Room, praying with the Apostles while awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14). In this sense, in the course of the centuries, Christian piety has honoured Mary with various titles, in many ways equivalent, such as Mother of Disciples, of the Faithful, of Believers, of all those who are reborn in Christ….”
The Decree referred to how Blessed Pope Paul VI, “on 21 November 1964, at the conclusion of the Third Session of the Second Vatican Council, declared the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Mother of the Church, that is to say of all Christian people, the faithful as well as the pastors, who call her the most loving Mother…’”
As will be seen below, events in the Hebrew Scriptures prefigure and identify the deeper meaning of such New Testament events as Mary’s Fiat (Ruth’s Declaration of Faith), the mission and mystery of Christ (who is the First Fruits of God’s redemptive plan), Redemption itself, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s role in the birth of the new Church. We begin with a little history. We can learn a great deal about these feasts of Pentecost and Mary Mother of the Church and of their importance to our personal spiritual lives by regarding them in juxtaposition beside the related Jewish harvest Feast of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), which celebrates First Fruits and the story of Ruth, who would be the ancient matriarch for the House of David.
Understanding Our Faith Through Its Ancient Hebrew TraditionsChristian tradition has consistently linked Jewish Shavuot and Christian Pentecost. However, as a student of scripture and theology, I have always wanted to have a deeper understanding of our Feast of Pentecost and its history and why we consistently relate it to the ancient Hebrew Feast. At first glance, it would seem that the association is a superficial one, simply due to the coincidence of their chronology on the sacred calendars of the two faiths. However, the confusion and perplexity dissipates surprisingly quickly after simply considering two important themes: the true nature of Torah and the spiritual importance of “first fruits” in salvation history.
Pardon the vocabulary lesson, but understanding the names of these feasts is the first step in understanding what they signify. Shavuot translates into English as “Weeks” and refers to the weeks of waiting after Passover). This Hebrew name also is translated into the Greek word, “Pentecost”, meaning 50th day. Shavuot always falls 50 days after Passover, just as the Christian Pentecost is set 50 days after Easter.
I knew it was more than just the 50 days coincidence, but what I knew raised more questions than it answered. For example: How possibly can there be a relationship between the Christian Feast of Pentecost, celebrating the birth of the Church with the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the ancient Hebrew Harvest Festival of Weeks?? Why do the Jewish people associate this harvest feast with the giving of the Torah? And, why do they associate Ruth with all of this, traditionally reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot?
So, now we go more deeply into the riches of these traditions by considering the ancient Hebrew roots of Pentecost. And, why is the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, celebrated as the two-day feast of Shavuot, associated with both the Christian Feast of Pentecost and this harvest festival?
Roots of Pentecost in the Hebrew ScripturesIn 2018, Shavuot (a two-day holiday) is celebrated this year from sunset on May 19th until nightfall on May 21st. In addition to being a harvest festival, it commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. According to Rabbinic tradition, codified in the Talmud at Shabbat 87b, the Ten Commandments were given on this day. In the era of the Temple, there were certain specific offerings mandated for Shavuot, and Shavuot was the first day for bringing of First Fruits of the early spring harvest to the Temple.
Torah (in Judaism) is the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures (the Pentateuch): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, sometimes called the Five Books of Moses. In its broadest sense, Torah is the entire body of Jewish teachings.
Torah is the Law, but Not in a Civil SenseGod, as our heavenly Father, gave the Israelites, his children, the Torah in a covenant of Divine Love. The purpose of this type of “parents” law is to teach and bring His children to spiritual maturity. This very different kind of law is meant to be communicated within the context of a loving family. Children follow instructions out of loving obedience to their elders. If they fall short of expectations, they are to be commended for the effort and counseled on how to do better the next time.
Unlike Torah, law is a set of rules from a government and binding on a community. In a civil sense, falling short of the law requires punishment. There is no room for teaching, either the law was broken with the penalty of punishment or it was not broken.
The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot for a couple of reasons. First, according to tradition, King David, Ruth's descendant, was born and died on Shavuot. Second, Shavuot occurs at harvest time [Exodus 23:16], and the events leading up to the second marriage of the widow, Ruth, also occur at a harvest festival.
Earlier in the story of Ruth, prior to their return to Bethlehem, Ruth’s conversion and her great declaration of faith in the God of her mother-in-law, Naomi, marked her decision to return home with Ruth. In an act of deep faith, she placed herself under the directives of the Torah. She did this as an act of love for her God and her mother-in-law. Hence, the relevance of her story to both the Torah and the image of Ruth as a kind of first fruits that would eventually give rise to the birth of King David.
In keeping with the true meaning of Torah, the events of Ruth’s life also foreshadow the importance to Christianity of the idea that the law be written in the hearts of believers.
The author of Hebrews says the Holy Spirit testifies:
"This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds."(Hebrews 10: 16)
Marie-Louise Handal is a Pauline Cooperator based in Manhattan, New York City. She is an educator and writer who has participated in organizing and hosting a number of Pauline Family special events, media presentations and educational programs in the New York Archdiocese and environs.
Her education includes a Master’s Degree from St. Joseph's Seminary, a Certificate in Spiritual Direction from the New York Archdiocesan Center for Spiritual Development, a Master of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and a B.A. in Mathematics & Science from Hunter College. She is currently a candidate for the S.T.L. from the International Marian Research Institute, the American Branch of the Pontifical Theological Faculty Marianum, Rome.