Thought for the month
Some of the great Christian festivals have names that are evocative – such as Easter, the old English for spring, the season of new life and beginning; others are self-explanatory – Christmas, the Eucharist of Christ’s birth – Harvest and Remembrance Sunday. But what are we to make of the names for the third great festival of the Christian year, Whitsun or Pentecost? Whitsun is easier – it is simply the medieval form of White Sunday, so called because it was a day for baptism when all those who were to be baptised wore white. Pentecost is more prosaic – it is simply the Greek for fifty – fifty days since Easter. (The Greeks counted inclusively – the Olympic Games were five years apart.) It was also the Jewish festival of harvest or the feast of Weeks and in a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures it was rather unimaginatively retitled “the fiftieth day” as being seven weeks after Passover.
But whatever we call it, Pentecost or Whitsun, it is still one of the great festivals of the Christian year, falling ten days after the feast of the Ascension, which marks the withdrawal of the earthly presence of the risen Jesus. It is forty days long, the traditional period in the Old and New Testament for a time of discovery and exploration – think of the years that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness or Jesus in the desert. In a sense the disciples were now on their own; they knew that Jesus was still alive but he had entrusted his mission to their lips, their hands. And so they prepared for it by a season of prayer and worship, perhaps a reminder to us that prayer and reflection are as equally important as action; one cannot exist without the other.
So it was that on the fiftieth day, the church was empowered by the coming of the Holy Spirit to begin its mission of sharing the good news of Jesus. The Spirit empowers the disciples and all who put their trust in Jesus to follow his command to go out into the world, to share the good news and to baptise all who sought to put their trust in Jesus. Equally they were to share the love of Jesus – in John’s gospel the night before he was arrested, Jesus gave his friends a new commandment – “Love one another as I have loved you.” This sharing of love is made real in the part of the story that tells us that all the crowd, gathered from all over the Roman world, understood Peter. A cynic might say that Greek was their common language; others, more perceptive, might recall the story of the tower of Babel in Genesis when, in pride and arrogance, people tried to build a tower to be like God. Their pride led to them being separated by language. Now that pride is set aside and all are called into a unity, where there is no barrier or division. The church comes to share a unity between God and human beings, in the love of Jesus, in the power of the Spirit. It is indeed a new beginning, the birth day of the church, and though we have sundered that unity though our own failings, it is perhaps a day to remember that more unites us than divides us, that all who love God in Jesus ought to seek to grow in trust and understanding.
A very happy birthday of the Church to one and all.