What Is Pentecost?
The word 'Pentecost' comes from the Greek; it simply means 'fiftieth'. Pentecost Sunday ends the season of Easter; it is the sabbath day after a week's worth of weeks (7 x 7 = 49). This year, that's on May 24, 2015.
Pentecost grew from what was originally a festival marking the first grain harvest of the Middle Eastern year, marked by a sacrifice to the gods from the first part of that first harvest. In very ancient Palestine, this first-fruit sacrifice was tightly tied into the religions of the gods of power and fertility (both in farming and in sex). As the Jews grew to understand themselves as followers of the one and only true God, they created ways to be thankful to that God, Yahweh, for the first harvest, without the pagan trappings. The celebration became a mini-pilgrimage, or chag, where they would stay at their region's shrine, bringing with them grain loaves and young livestock for sacrifices. As the Jewish kings started to centralize religious activity into Jerusalem (a process that took several centuries), this pilgrimage and sacrifice was brought there, with all the songs, processions, liturgies and pageantry that Jerusalem did so well. To them, the 50-day period was the week's worth of weeks after the Unleavened Bread (Passover). Passover recalled hard times and rescue by God, hence the unleavened bread; Pentecost (Shavu'ot) was the celebration of a blessing of harvest, and its joy was symbolized by leavening the bread. The festival began to take on another religious role around the time of the Exile. Because Exodus 19:1 describes the arrival of the Jewish people at Sinai as being at about the same time of year, Pentecost was used to mark the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Over time, the Torah became more prominent in Feast of Weeks celebrations.
Now, fast-forward to Jesus' time. As Luke reports it, the believers had gathered together after Jesus returned to the Father. Not just the 12 disciples, but about 120 of them. They were talking, remembering, praying, wondering what was next. (They had just been through several of the strangest months there ever were.) On the morning of Pentecost, they came out of the room, lit up by the Holy Spirit, and started telling the people they met about Jesus. The streets were full of people from many places, mostly there for the holy day, some still hanging around from Passover. When each of them heard the witnesses speak, they heard it in their own language! (That is, if they were allowing themselves to listen; otherwise, they heard babbling, as shown by the remarks about drunkenness.) What was being told, for the first time in full form, was the good news of Jesus and what it means for all people. But more than words: the words were being carried with power and authority by the Holy Spirit into the ears and the hearts of those who are listening. About 3000 new people join their ranks. This is the first fruits of a new kind of harvest, and the giving of a new covenant of grace that fulfils the covenant of the Torah.
Is the Spirit's Presence Different Now?
Pentecost was not the first time the Spirit was active. The Spirit had been working all along in humans who listened, giving them guidance, teaching, shedding light on the mysteries of life, and causing prophecies. The Spirit struck home powerfully in John the Baptist's message, and came in full force upon Jesus at the baptism which began Jesus' public ministry. Jesus was a man who was overflowing with the Spirit, and it showed in whatever He did -- the teaching, the healings, the suffering and the death, the return and the leaving. John's Gospel even mentions that Jesus had blown the Spirit onto each of His disciples before leaving. But Pentecost was the first day that the Spirit took hold of the followers of Christ as a group or "body", and came to stay. It was the first time the Spirit's raw power was there in anyone who followed Christ, not just the Twelve.
The Church Gets A Mission
Pentecost was not the first time Jesus' believers had acted together. They did so during His ministry, and did so by gathering in the house just before Pentecost. But it was the first time they had a complete message, an empowered mission or purpose, and a unity that came from beyond themselves. Before, they were just another small circle of people following a leader around; now, they had become the church, an entity that would eventually be measured in billions. The difference: the arrival of the Holy Spirit in force, to join them together.
One of the images that Acts leaves us with is that of all these people from all sorts of places, hearing and understanding the message in their own language. This is a reversal of the Tower of Babel, where a single language became a wide variety of languages and the 'message' of human hubris (excess pride) called 'the Tower of Babel' could no longer be heard or understood. In today's world, people of different languages communicate with each other all the time. But how much of it is meaningless babble disguised as words, images, and newsbites?? How much of it still bears a message of human hubris? Does anyone have anything worth telling about anymore? Perhaps, only the message God wants us to know, the message of God's love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. God wants us to know Jesus. But most folks prefer to babble on.
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Only The Spirit Gives Life
Another striking image of the Spirit and the Spirit's work comes from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is a Jew in exile after Babylon has conquered and scattered his people, away from the land of God's promise. Earlier (33:10), Ezekiel had asked, 'how then can we live'? If their evil deeds had caused them to be forever cut off from God, the answer is that they can't. Thankfully, God has a different vision of it, and shared it with Ezekiel. First, God tells Ezekiel to proclaim to a field of dead bones. He does, and something really weird happens : the bones come together, then muscles, joints, skin, eyes, even nose hairs. Real, whole bodies form from the Word. But they are still dead. Then, Ezekiel speaks again at God's command, calling on the wind for the breath to go into the dead bodies, to make them alive. The breath (that is, 'spirit') of God is what makes all life live. And it is what will bring God's people back home, to once again live as a people. And so it was; the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are accounts of a dead nation at the moment it came back to life. The message of the Christian Pentecost is that the Breath that makes life live has been let loose among us by Jesus the Messiah. Through this Jesus and the Spirit He sent, not only is death ultimately dead, but life becomes more fully alive.
Am I In This Ongoing Pentecost?
When I'm writing about the church here, I'm not speaking of a hierarchy or a structure. I'm talking about people who are called to be together in order to share Jesus' love. If you believe in Jesus and are baptized, then you're a part of that called-together group, something much bigger than you are. Being a part of it means you have the Holy Spirit at work in you. And, that means you have tasks that the Lord wants you to do, and you have been given what it takes to do them. You are to listen for the Spirit's leading, through the Scriptures God gave for you. The liberating, ear-popping spiritual event of Pentecost was the first fruit of something that continues to this day, and beyond.
Some of you are just wondering about this faith; you find it weird, intriguing, or perhaps just puzzling. God meant for you to be in this, too. But you are not like the 120 from the upper room; you are more like the people who were in the crowd that Pentecost day. Some 3000 of those in the crowd changed course and became believers. A few griped. Some debated it among themselves. But most people in Jerusalem didn't even notice, or saw it and went on with their holy-day daily grind. No new power hit their lives. No new purpose gave them new direction. And many people, even devout ones, still could not sense the presence and power of God in their lives. Pentecost holds the promise that God has something new in store. The believers from that first Pentecost day kept having faith, and kept telling about Jesus, and kept living His way. And many more would find the promise fulfilled in their lives; many more would be lit.
How Is Pentecost Celebrated?
In the English tradition, the day is sometimes known as Whitsunday. This refers to the white robes of those baptized on this day. Perhaps your congregation is baptizing on Pentecost, just like on the first Christian Pentecost. Celebrate the baptisms, and those that happened during the Easter season, perhaps with a party. In liturgical churches, confirmation of youths marks the fulfillment of the promises about faith made by parents and parish at infant baptism. Exodus 19, the Jewish Feast of Weeks reading, is a passage used by Christians and Jews in their confirmation rites. Thus, many parishes hold confirmation ceremonies on Pentecost or during that week. Pentecost is not just a day for baptism, but also for evangelism, for spreading the Word boldly in person to other people, just like on the first Christian Pentecost.
The church used to celebrate Pentecost all week, right through to the next Sunday worship services. Today, it's usually only marked for Pentecost Sunday itself, and in some places also on Monday. The rest of the Church year, until Advent, is named by Protestants as the Sundays after Pentecost, although technically, the entire history of the Church is 'after Pentecost', or at least after the first one. (Catholics call it 'Ordinary Time', and the Sundays are numbered in order until the next season comes.) During that period, Christians follow the life of Jesus through Bible readings (the lectionary) and sermons (homilies), in order to learn what it means to live as followers of Christ. Christians celebrate the Spirit that Jesus sent in His stead, and use the gifts that this Spirit has given us in order to build up each other, the church as a whole, and the society as a whole.
Pentecost is not a solemn occasion. It's a time for vigor, excitement, energy, movement, birth, fresh air and fresh commitment. If Pentecost has a sleepy feel to it in your life, wake up! Indeed, one of the best ways to celebrate it is to do just that: wake up early. If your household is committed to the faith, and you're in your own house (or if your landlord or tenants want to do it with you), it's a time to sing! I'd be singing mostly hymns, but you might like praise-and-worship or gospel songs or campground songs of faith or spirituals, songs the kids can sing along with. Have each person read some relevant passage of the Bible, such as Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2; Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12; Joel 2:28-29; Numbers 11:24-30; Isaiah 32:15-17; 1 John 4:1-4; or Genesis 11:1-9. And pray that the Holy Spirit moves among each and all who are there, and in the neighborhood you live in.
Worship in a church with others who are worshipping Christ that Sunday (if you don't have a church, pick one and go). If you regularly go to church, invite someone to go with you for Pentecost Sunday. The Spirit birthed the fellowship of Jesus' followers (the church) on that first Pentecost, so to try to worship Christ by yourself on Pentecost Sunday is even more of a rejection of the Spirit than it usually is.
Afterwards, take some time to think about the gifts the Spirit has given you: 'Is there a way I can use these to build up or help bring healing to others, to the credit of God alone?' If you want to thank the Spirit for giving gifts, do it by using them instead of sitting back and frittering away the opportunities.
Symbols Of Pentecost: Flame!
There are other ways to mark the occasion. Pentecost is a time of red -- a color of fire and zeal and passion and heat. The Spirit is incendiary within us. Thus, wear red or flame-orange clothes or accessories, especially when combined with baptismal whites. Bring out the red potted flowers, and make flame decorations. Serve red and zingy foods. My favorites are Italian pasta dishes with hot sausage and tomato sauce, but you might want to try Mexican food with red peppers and chilies and tomatos. Eat that red supper together with family, friends, and perhaps a new acquaintance, lighting a candle on the table for each person who's there, as well as perhaps ones for other loved ones who are especially missed. (Please use a stable candle, with wide-based holders, or those wide-cup candles.) You can use that time to say something brief about where the Spirit's flame burns in your life. Red could also be the theme of the refreshments made available at church after worship. Fruit punch, anyone? At Pentecost, the theme is not the kind of fire that consumes and destroys; the theme is the kind of fire that warms, energizes, excites, powers.
Doves are another symbol of the Spirit, since the Spirit came to Jesus' baptism in the form of a dove. Your house or apartment or main window could be tastefully decorated with dove decorations. Humans have always envied the blessing birds have been given. Even today, we wistfully dream of flying freely among the winds without a contraption around us. The dove is also a symbol of peace, one of Jesus's profoundest hopes for the human race. So, wise sayings and symbols of peace can be used with the doves. In the context of Pentecost, peace and community are cherished as gifts of God rather than as the work of humans. (Please avoid the kitschy dovey stuff -- it can get really tacky. If you use any real doves, remember that they're pigeons, and can make an awful mess. And, like any bird, they're easily harmed.)
The wind is another Pentecost symbol of the Spirit, since the Hebrew word means 'wind' or 'breath'. In some places, the weather's warm enough to open the windows all the way and let the wind blow fresh air into the house. One couple I know puts their collection of weather vanes and windmills in the front yard and on the roof, so that it's easy to see the effect of wind. Wind socks can do likewise. Like the wind, the Spirit is not seen except by how the surrounding world is affected.
It's a good idea to bear something about the Pentecost celebration into each Sunday until Advent, to act as a reminder. Something red or fiery, something with a dove symbol, something symbolic of the wind. The most important thing about Pentecost is to learn what the Spirit does, and to trust this Spirit to lead you and empower your life.
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