Tuesday, June 2, 2009


The Day of Pentecost!

A significant day in the Church’s season and calendar. A red letter day in the true sense of the word, yet a frustrating morning when one of the dogs stole my red socks which I was intending to wear. I know which one - but he's saying nothing.

Remember that Pentecost is not a name but a number – a Greek word meaning fifty days. The word is common to both the Christian and the Jewish faiths.

The Jewish Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover, commemorates the giving of the Law, 50 days after the Israelites' liberation from Egypt. On that day God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, establishing the Covenant with the People of God. Pentecost also became a celebration of the spring wheat harvest in ancient Israel.

The Christian Pentecost is celebrated 50 days after Easter, and the empowerment of those early disciples to live out the New Commandment: Love one another. And many call Pentecost the "Birthday" of the Christian Church.

There is nothing wrong with the phrase “birthday of the Church,” but we must be wary of understanding Pentecost in a way that is too structured and institutional. Like any birthday, we must, first and foremost, treat it as a celebration.

Pentecost is a very colorful celebration – as not only are the stories and biblical narratives full of rich symbolism and metaphor – most of which is Old Testament in origin, but also the feast has given rise to many traditional and ceremonies down the ages.

In medieval times holes were opened up in the ceilings of churches to symbolize openness to God. Doves were released through the holes during the Eucharist. Think of the mess!

In the Baltic state of Lithuania on the eve of Pentecost, village girls made wreaths of flowers and greenery and young men cut branches from birch trees, which they placed around doors, gates, inside porches and in living rooms.

Why birch trees? Because it was believed that the souls of the dead, while visiting homes on Pentecost, rested on birch branches. And so farmers also decorated their cows with birch wreaths, to keep them calm and together, and produce good milk.

In rural England and Wales, Pentecost, known still by the Old English name of Whitsun, White Sunday, remains an important feast of the year – celebrated with much music, dancing eating and drinking. It was, and is traditional to brew a Whitsun ale especially for the celebrations.

In Hawaii, Pentecost is a time of hospitality. Today in those islands churches are serving meals to all who come to worship.

There are hundreds of similar examples of tradition – and why not. If it is a birthday then it ought to be celebrated in style!

It’s all great fun – as Christian faith and tradition ought to be on a festival day. It almost seems a shame to introduce a little piece of theology. It’s a bit like being at a party and enjoying sumptuous food and excellent company when the host says – “Stop. We really ought to be more serious."

The Holy Spirit being poured out on the believers is represented by the sound of a rushing wind and by tongues of fire. There is nothing new here – in fact this is Old Testament tradition being re-written. These symbols are none other than graphic ways of describing the very presence of God.

That is a wonderful way of understanding the beginnings of the Church – that among those early faithful, God was present.

Now strip away the biblical symbols and the ways in which they are interpreted by various groups, and the bottom line of Pentecost is that it marks the beginning of a journey.

The journey of faith that the Church still walks. That’s you and me, for it is our journey.

It is a journey on which we are promised constant company and strength. That is the continuing presence of God along the way.

Each year at Pentecost we continue to celebrate the journey we walk, the generations that have walked before us, and those who will come after us. All in the presence of God – the strength of the Holy Spirit.

One of my favorite images of God’s Holy Spirit comes from the early medieval Celtic Church. Rather than the Spirit being portrayed as a dove, which is rather tame and inoffensive – Celtic Christians chose the wild goose as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. A wild goose is a noisy, bothersome bird. Untamable. Unpredictable. And messy!

Who can say what the Spirit will say to us, and who can say where it will lead us?

Remember - the Christian life is full of surprises!

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