WHITSUNDAY – THE DAY OF PENTECOST (Spiritus Domini)
Introit: (Wisdom 1.7) The Spirit of the Lord hath filled the whole world, alleluia: and that which containeth all things hath knowledge of the voice, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Ps. (68) Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him. Glory be … The Spirit of the Lord …
Collect: O God, who as on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by the sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things; and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
OT Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions: and also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth, blood, and fire, and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and the terrible day of the Lord come. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved: for in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be salvation, as the Lord hath said, and in the remnant whom the Lord shall call. (Joel 2.28-32)
Alleluia. (Ps 104) O send forth thy Spirit, and they shall be created: and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. Alleluia.
Epistle: When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilæans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judæa, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our own tongues the wonderful works of God. (Acts 2.1-11)
Alleluia. The Holy Spirit, proceeding from the throne, came down in unseen majesty, as on this day, upon the Twelve, purifying their inmost hearts. Alleluia. Come, Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of thy faithful people: and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Jesus said unto his disciples: If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you. He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world? Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me. These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe. Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me. But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. (St John 14.15-31)
“The Spirit of the Lord hath filled the whole world.”
This day brings the Paschal Season to a close. Following a week of weeks, we have arrived at the fiftieth day, or “Pentecost.” We are so accustomed to thinking of Pentecost as a Christian feast that we might forget that it existed as a Jewish Holy Day for many centuries before the Church inherited it. The second of the three Great Feasts, celebrated fifty days after Passover, the Harvest Festival of Shavuot (Heb. “Weeks”), along with the offering to God of the firstfruits of the land, commemorated the giving of the Commandments on Mount Sinai. The regulations for the festival are set out in the 23rd chapter of Leviticus. The offerings prescribed for Shavuot were material goods: lambs and kids, fresh fruit, grain and vegetables, and loaves of bread: but these tangible gifts were but outward symbols of gratitude and faithfulness, acknowledging God as the giver of “every good and perfect gift.” It was a time when all Israelites were to come together to celebrate the gifts of life, law, and liberty that bound them to God and to one another. Jews and proselytes alike made the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, many of them longing for deliverance and renewal. And in this setting of thankfulness and expectation, the Church was born.
Our Christian feast of Pentecost, or Whitsunday, celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now of course the Holy Spirit of God has been from all eternity, and had been given many times before to the great prophets of Israel, but only on a temporary ad hoc basis. This was something quite different—“that he may abide with you for ever,” Our Lord had promised, “for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” The Latin word spiritus, the Hebrew רוּחַ (ruach), and the Greek πνεῦμα (pneuma), all can mean “breath” or “wind” as well as “spirit”—one might say, “air in motion.” When the ancient Hebrews thought of God, they often imagined the wind—invisible, mysterious, yet powerful, even terrifying. One cannot control the wind. And yet it is essential to life. In Genesis 1, we read: “In the beginning, … the earth was without form and void … And the Spirit of God—the Wind of God, the Breath of God—breathed across the face of the waters.” Then in chapter 2, God created man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into him the ruach—the breath, the wind, the spirit—of life. God spoke our world into existence and breathed life into it. Psalm 139 says, “Where could I go to escape from your Spirit? Where could I go to flee from your Presence? If I went up to heaven, you are there. If I went down to the place of the dead, you are there. If I went to the farthest place in the East or the farthest place in the West, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand hold me fast.” Our Lord Jesus, in His conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, says, “The wind blows where it wills and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The disciples are in Jerusalem, awaiting the Festival of Shavuot. In that upper room, surrounded by all the preparations for the ancient feast day, the small band of followers wait for the fulfilment of their Lord’s promise of “another Comforter”—whatever that might mean. Still frightened and confused, they have no idea how to carry out the Lord’s final command to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. Then suddenly, with gale-force wind and blazing fire, they experience the living presence of God in their inmost hearts, moving them from sadness to joy, from fear to revival. Psalm 104 encapsulates the atmosphere of Pentecost: “You make the winds your messengers, and flames of fire your ministers.” Wind and fire—two of the most powerful and fearsome natural forces we know. Not a gentle dove wafting down from heaven, but mighty wind and tongues of fire! That is how the Spirit came. And just as Joel had prophesied, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they all began to prophesy – to speak boldly of the wonderful works of God – in various languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. They are filled with this divine Breath of Life and sent forth with renewed strength and zeal to proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ. And thousands responded. These newly-inspired apostles literally “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17.6). Jesus has become once again a living and powerful reality, and forever thereafter present wherever two or three are gathered in His Name, just as He had promised: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
Pentecost has undone the punishment of the Tower of Babel. “By one miracle of tongues, men were dispersed and gradually fell from true religion. By another, national barriers were broken down—that all men might be brought back to the family of God” (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 1871). These timid disciples found themselves testifying boldly and eloquently to who Jesus was, and what He had done in their lives. They had been given the breath of faith, and burst out in languages they had never spoken before. And the people heard and understood “the wonderful works of God.” Then Peter gave voice to what was happening, and as he preached, all of these people – from near and far, natives and foreigners, young and old – began to inhale some of this Spirit into their own lives. The Breath of God filled them, giving them a courage and a strength of which they did not even know themselves capable, and the Church was breathed into being. Pentecost is that special day on which the Church acknowledges specifically a fact that is true at all times: namely, that if we did not have the Holy Spirit, the Church would be dead, for the same reason that we would soon keel over and die if we stopped breathing right now.
In the Middle Ages, many European churches were built especially to impress upon the people the events of Pentecost. In the lofty and richly decorated ceilings were small doors or circular openings called “Holy Ghost holes.” During Mass on Pentecost Sunday, when the whole town was gathered, a few parishioners were conscripted to climb up into the attic and, at the appointed moment during the liturgy, would release a live dove through the hole to swoop over the congregation as a living symbol of the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time trumpets would sound, or the choirboys would make whooshing noises. Then buckets of rose petals (or in some places bits of burning straw!) were showered down upon the congregation, representing the tongues of flame. Imagine the impact this would have made in the drab and difficult lives of those mediæval Christians! They may not have been able to read about Pentecost, but this dramatic visual demonstration must certainly have left a lasting impression.
We know that both wind and breath, although unseen, are nonetheless awesome realities. The “breath of life” provided by CPR literally means the difference between life and death. And certainly we are aware that wind can be hugely destructive—one need not be able to see this “air in motion” to respect its reality or its power. Yet the Holy Spirit is not simply a force, but a Person—one with the Father and the Son. Only God can create life where there was previously nothing. The entire Creation began when the Spirit of God blew over the waters of chaos. The creation of humanity in the image of God came only when the Spirit of God was breathed into the man of clay. Likewise, the re-creation of humanity in the image of Christ also requires a Pentecostal encounter with the life-giving Spirit of God.
And not only wind, but fire. From the very earliest accounts—the burning bush, the pillar that led the Israelites in the exodus from Egypt, the top of Mount Sinai where the Law was given—the mysterious Spirit of God has often been represented by fire. The liturgical colour for Pentecost is red, symbolizing this fire. What makes fire such an eloquent symbol? Think of a campfire, or a crackling fireplace on a cold winter night—fire seems to have the power to gather us around it. Fire is a source of light. In like manner the Holy Spirit enlightens us, bringing brightness and clarity to even our darkest situations. And fire is a method of purification. Precious metals are obtained by burning away the dross, purifying the metal in the consuming heat of a raging furnace. That, too, describes the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit burns within us, purging us of the baser things, burning away all that is unworthy or sinful, sanctifying and purifying us with the power of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
As with breath, our lives depend on fire. Without fire we have no light, no heat, no means of sustaining life. But as we all know, fire is also dangerous—a terrifying, destructive force that may perhaps be domesticated, but never tamed—ever ready to rage out of control, consuming everything in its path. Unless we remember all this, we miss the significance of the tongues of fire as a symbol of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Our God is a consuming fire (Ex. 24.17, Heb. 12.29). And on this Day of Pentecost, God has come upon these men and women like a fire, burning away all selfishness and timidity from their troubled hearts, and leaping from person to person with incredible and uncontrollable energy. It grows in seconds from a spark to a raging inferno. That fire has burnt across continents and down centuries, and still burns among and within us today. There are times in our lives when it burns with power and fierce heat; there are other times when it gutters and almost seems to die. Yet it will continue to burn so long as we do not extinguish it.
And that fire is all-consuming. It is hardly a coincidence that “spirit” and “alcohol” are often used synonymously. When a person is drunk, the alcohol influences everything: thinking, speech, and physical movements are all affected. When the crowds in Jerusalem saw the apostles’ enthusiasm after receiving the Holy Spirit, the conclusion of many was that they were drunk. In a way, they were. They had a new Spirit within them that controlled their thinking, their speaking, and their every action and movement. And that is what the Holy Spirit seeks to do in all of us. There are many spirits in this world that we can breathe in, but whereas some spirits can consume our lives, only the Spirit of God will finally bring us true life. All other spirits lead sooner or later to disappointment and confusion, but when God’s Holy Spirit fills us, we find a purpose, a clarity, and a zeal for life that can come from nowhere else. For C. S. Lewis, the Holy Spirit came to him in the feeling of a presence “that in a strange way was both about me and within me like a light or warmth. I was overwhelmingly possessed by someone who was not myself. And yet, I felt more myself than ever before. I was filled with intense happiness and almost unbearable joy, as I had never known before or never known since. And overall, there was a deep sense of peace and security and certainty.”
Our current society tends to be quite impatient with formal definition and doctrine, and with settled institutional forms. And this is unfortunately true even in the Church. We tend rather to exalt the virtues of individual opinion and personal feeling, without recognising any objective truth or good against which to measure those feelings and opinions. But today’s Gospel reminds us that the Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of Truth—the Truth revealed in God’s commandments—and that those commandments are the definitive measure of our opinions and our feelings: “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me.” There have been those in every age who would regard some ecstatic experience as the necessary mark of the Christian Life. In our own time, for instance, there are certain “Pentecostals” who regard the ability to “speak in tongues” as the touchstone of authentic Christianity; and there are many others too, who suppose that real Christianity must be a matter of overwhelming emotional experience. For such people, the subtleties of Christian doctrine, and established forms of worship and prayer, seem to be impediments to true spirituality. But while “Experience” does have a place in Anglican piety, the Spirit of God is the spirit of order, not of chaos; and the spiritual life must be formed and shaped in the precise clarity of doctrine, and nurtured in the settled forms of institutions, in the rhythm of fixed patterns of worship and prayer(“lex orandi, lex credendi”—the way we pray shapes how we believe). As St Luke records in Acts 2, the new disciples “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” Yes, Pentecost is a celebration of religious emotion and fervour; but the Spirit of Pentecost is also the Spirit of “truth” and of “right judgement,” and that Spirit is expressed and comes to fruition in us by our keeping of God’s commandments, our continuing “in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”
Pentecost is for us, as for the ancient Jews, an offering of the firstfruits: The Word of God, sown in our hearts and minds, by the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, is brought to fruition, and we offer up to God the firstfruits of the gifts which He has given us. Just as the Spirit of God filled those gathered on that memorable Pentecost, so we are energized by the same Spirit to reorient ourselves, to move from being those who build walls, or towers, to those who build relationships. The Holy Spirit is manifest wherever there is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control” (Eph. 5.22-23). And it doesn’t matter how emotional or ‘charismatic,’ how ‘high’ or ‘spiky’ we are, or how big a show we put on, but what we do in our everyday lives that tells people if our faith is real. The primary work of the Holy Spirit is to make the love of Christ alive within us, so that the teachings of Jesus become living realities in our lives, each and every day. The story of Pentecost teaches us that if we dare to pray “Come, Holy Spirit,” if we are open to breathing Him in, we will find our lives filled with a courage and a passion we did not even know we could possess.
The Spirit binds us together into the Church. We are all individuals with our own unique talents and gifts. We come from different backgrounds. We can be so different that it can be hard to agree and get along with each other. Nevertheless, the Church has survived over so many centuries in spite of the diversity of its members. That is what makes the Church so special. The Spirit binds us together in order to care for one another, love one another, pray for one another, encourage one another, help one another, as we share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Without the Holy Spirit there would be no Church. The Gospel message would be unknown. There would be no hope of eternal life. The Spirit is still at work around, among, in, and through us, no matter where we go, like the air we breathe. He empowers our lives. He deepens our faith. He motivates our mission. He gives us life. Maybe we have become a little blasé, a little lackadaisical, a little lukewarm. The Spirit wants to work in us and through us to make us into a church that is alive, renewed, refreshed, invigorated to do His work – to draw all people into the warmth of God’s presence.
Pentecost is not just some historic commemoration. Pentecost is now … and every day. It is the pilgrimage of the Christian life itself. May God grant that His Holy and life-giving Spirit burn so brightly within us all, that others too may catch the flame.
“Come, Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of thy faithful people: and kindle in them the fire of thy love.”
Collect: Send, we beseech thee, Almighty God, thy Holy Spirit into our hearts: that he may direct and rule us according to thy will, comfort us in all our afflictions, defend us from all error, and lead us into all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the Spirit of Truth lead you into all truth, giving you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and boldness to proclaim the wonderful works of God;
And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.