- First Reading Acts 2:1-21
- Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
- Second Reading Romans 8:22-27
- Gospel John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
In this country, the secular, cultural celebrations of holidays have their own status, often wildly disconnected from the ecclesial or liturgical meaning of the day.
Christmas is, of course, the prime example. The cultural forces around Christmas are such that the beginning of the Christmas season creeps closer to October every year. Christmas celebrations have already largely erased Advent from the popular consciousness, so that when most people do think of Advent, they consider it only the countdown to Christmas, marked with those calendars with treats hidden behind folding paper doors. Calendars that usually have 25 doors, one for each day of December, even though Advent itself ranges from 22 to 28 days in length.
Strangely, at least to me, despite the expansion of cultural Christmas across the month of December and, increasingly, November as well, the cultural celebrations of it tend to abruptly end on December 25, even as the liturgical celebration of Christmas continues for almost two more weeks. I even once received a Twelve Days of Christmas “Advent Calendar,” whose makers seemed entirely unaware that December 25 is the first day of Christmas in the song. The twelfth day is January 5, the day before Epiphany. This abrupt end of Cultural Christmas celebrations is even more surprising given the common alignment of those twelve days to schools’ winter breaks.
The other major crossover holiday with both ecclesial and cultural significance is, of course, Easter. Easter, despite being significantly more important in the church, is far less of a cultural holiday, at least in this country. Yes, Easter often does coincide with a break from school, but one that is typically only half the length of the Christmas break. Easter sees significantly less consumerist demand, although the candy delivered by the Easter Bunny and through egg hunts is movement in that direction. Much like Christmas, Easter is not a single day, but is a season, and, also like Christmas, I think few people pay attention to the Easter Season, but instead finish their commemoration of the resurrection on the day.
I have not done my part in promoting Easter as a season this year, but I hope to change that some today. Today is Pentecost, and it marks the end of the Easter Season and Pentecost, on its own, deserves a spot at least in the top three Christian holidays, even as it is the one we may talk about the least.
In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, that moment we read about in Acts today, as the Spirit descended on the gathered Christian community, still reeling from the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, still trying to discern its new place in the world without the direct leadership of Jesus. As they sit in this uncertainty, knowing they are called to do more, but unsure about how to proceed, the Spirit comes and causes them to start to proclaim the message of Christ, but not only in their own language, the Aramaic of the Galilee, but in the languages of all those staying in Jerusalem and close enough to hear. The text tells us: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
The Spirit did not give the assembled crowd the ability to understand the Galileans, did not grant the crowd knowledge of Aramaic, but it gave the gift of translation to the assembled early-Christians. The gift of the Spirit is not one that brings other people to us. The gift of the Spirit is not a gift of conformity, of bringing other people into our world. As with the baptisms of Cornelius and the Ethiopian Eunuch, the gift of the Spirit is something that helps us to see what God is already doing, and that helps us to reach out to others.
Pentecost did not, however, originate with these early Christians. The name “Pentecost” comes through the Greek, for “fifty-days,” because in Judaism, Pentecost is the 50th day following Passover, just as for Christians it is the fiftieth day after Easter. In contemporary Judaism, Pentecost, or Shavuot, in Hebrew, celebrates the gift of the Law, when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, but Pentecost has an even older, secular meaning as well. As best we can tell, even before Pentecost became a celebration of the Holy Spirit, even before Pentecost was a celebration of the Law, Pentecost was a celebration of the first harvest, the first fruits of the growing season.
Paul connects these meanings of Pentecost in our lectionary passage from Romans when Paul speaks of the “first fruit of the Spirit.” After Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit was not limited only to those early-Christians present in Jerusalem, but the gift grew and expanded to others as more people joined the early Church. Paul elaborates as well on another gift of the Spirit: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The Spirit give us more than just the words to talk to others, more than the words to tell others of our faith. The spirit as well gives us words of comfort and, when words are not enough, when our own pain is too great for speech, the spirit comes with “sighs too deep for words.”
So why don’t we talk more about the Spirit? We wear red for Pentecost, but how often do we talk about why? Why is it that the celebration of the Holy Spirit, the person of the Trinity with whom we are most intimately connected, the person of the Trinity who embodies the quiet, still voice of God to us and who helps us to find the words to speak both to and of God, is one of the Christian holy days we speak about the least?
I wish I had an answer. I do not, though I wonder if Jesus told us something of it in his final discourse before his arrest, as told in the Gospel According to John: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
The Spirit does not speak on its own. The Spirit guides us. The Spirit helps us to recognize the spark of the divine in each other, strives always to show us the image of God in each and every other person we encounter, but the Spirit does not speak on its own. When we cry out to God, we open ourselves to receive the Spirit and her “sighs too deep for Words.” When we reach out to speak to others, to share ourselves and our faith, the Spirit responds and can give us the words that others need to hear even as we struggle to comprehend another person’s life and experience. This Spirit forms and strengthens the connection, but the Spirit does not speak in her own.
So, friends, as you go out into the world, as you feel the urge to speak with others, to connect with others, to form and build relationships with others, the Spirit will respond and guide, but we need to move as well, we must participate with the Spirit, we must demonstrate our willingness to be that vehicle for God’s presence in someone else’s life.
I do not know why we speak so little of Pentecost, but I know that if we try to share our faith with humility, with the desire to form and build relationships, the Spirit will respond and guide our words.