Friday, May 17, 2013

"Come, Holy Ghost!": A few thoughts about Pentecost...

Tomorrow evening is the Vigil of Pentecost, the beginning of our celebration of the descent on the Holy Spirit. For me (and I know I can't be alone in this), this event, recorded in the Book of Acts, is one of more mysterious and hard-to-imagine happenings in the early days of the Church. And maybe for this reason, I constantly struggle with my understanding of the Person of the Holy Spirit.

But I'm comforted by a few realities:

1) The long, deep, historical roots of this feast day (it is ancient!), which means that, despite my finite understanding of it all, faith and trust in the Church helps me to place great value on the event and the celebration of Pentecost, even when it is not something that necessarily "feel" drawn to.

 2) The fact that Pentecost serves as a one of two liturgical hinges on the door that connects Christianity to its Jewish roots. In other words, Pentecost is closely connected to Easter and these two feasts have a direct correlation on the Jewish calendar that Jesus and the Apostles celebrated. To me, that's pretty cool.

3) Even though I sometimes struggle to understand and, (as embarrassing as it is to admit) probably tend to neglect, my relationship with the Holy Spirit, the Feast of Pentecost calls me to account and prods me to explore more deeply the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. And growing in spiritual (or should I say Spiritual) understanding is always a very good thing.

The Apostolic Roots of Pentecost

The early Church celebrated Pentecost almost from the beginning. Not only is the event of Pentecost clearly described in the New Testament, but we know, too, that the event continued to be celebrated by the early Christians. In the earliest writings from the Church Fathers, Pentecost is the only other feast, besides Pascha (i.e. Easter), even mentioned. So it's evident that much emphasis was placed on this holy day from the very start.

By the time the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord came to be celebrated, the Church encouraged the faithful to mimic the actions of the holy Mary and the Apostles, who spent nine days in the Upper Room, in prayer after Jesus ascended to heaven. This is the birth of the traditional Catholic practice of the novena, or nine days of prayer. On a side note, this is one reason why the current practice of moving observance of Christ's Ascension from its proper day (Ascension Thursday) to the following Sunday (as we do here in our diocese) is regrettable, to say the least.

At any rate, Pentecost is actually the second most-ancient and most-important feast of the Church (after Easter). And when we can follow the biblical model of praying an actual novena between the Ascension and Pentecost, we can better prepare to celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

The Jewish Roots of Pentecost

Going back even further and deeper (in a historical sense), are the roots of Pentecost in Judaism. The name "Pentecost" is from the Greek word for "fiftieth," the word that the author of the Acts of the Apostles used as the Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or the "Feast of Weeks." Shavuot commemorates the day on which God gave the Law to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. And the date of Shavuot falls exactly fifty days after the Feast of Passover, marking a seven-week observance.

The New Testament record makes it clear that, on the day of the Holy Spirit's descent, the disciples were gathered together to celebrate this Jewish feast together: "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together." (Acts 2:1) So, along with Easter (which corresponds to Passover), Pentecost is the other great feast of the Church which has its roots in (and still closely mirrors) the Jewish observance. This is, of course, why we still call this day "Pentecost."

Interestingly, the fact that Pentecost has its own Vigil on our Church calendar is yet another indication of its Jewish roots and of its importance. The observance of "vigils" is derived from the Jewish observance that sacred days begin not at dawn but at sundown the previous day. And, despite the insistence of many parishes of (wrongly) labeling every  Mass celebrated on the evening before the day as a "vigil Mass," (these are actually "Masses of Anticipation," not "Vigil Masses"), Pentecost is actually one of only six days on the Church calendar that has a "Vigil." And whenever it is celebrated fully (in it's "extended form" with multiple readings), the Vigil for Pentecost closely mirrors the Vigil of Easter, serving, along with the Easter Vigil, as a liturgical bookend for our 50-day celebration of Christ's Resurrection.

Pentecost: Calling us to a deeper understanding of the Holy Spirit

This final point is one which is unique to each of us. Some are blessed with a deep and abiding understanding of the Holy Spirit. Others (like me) can use all the help that we can get. Needless to say, much ink has been spilled throughout the centuries by men and women far smarter than me, in explaining Who the Spirit is. One of my favorite modern Christian writers, C.S. Lewis, does as good a job as any in explaining the Holy Sprit to idiots like me. Maybe you, too, can find something helpful in his words.

First of all, Lewis speaks directly to me with this description of the Holy Spirit's role in our Christian lives:

"Do not be worried or surprised if you find the Holy Spirit rather vaguer or more shadowy in your mind than the other two persons [of the Trinity]. In the Christian life you are not usually looking at [the Holy Spirit]: He is always acting through you. If you think of the Father as someone in front of you, and of the Son as someone standing at your side, helping you to pray, trying to turn you into another son, then you have to think of the third Person as someone inside you."

And finally, Lewis on the Holy Spirit in the Holy Trinity:

"…in Christianity God is not a static thing – not even a person – but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama.  Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.  The union between the Father and the Son is such a live concrete thing that this union itself is also a Person.  I know this is almost inconceivable, but look at it thus.  You know that among human beings, when they get together in a family, or a club, or a trade union, people talk about the ‘spirit’ of that family, club, or trade union.  The talk about its ‘spirit’ because the individual members, when they are together, do really develop particular ways of talking and behaving which they would not have if they were apart (this corporate behavior may, of course, be either better or worse than their private behavior).  It is as if a sort of communal personality came into existence.  Of course, it is not a real person: it is only rather like a person.  But that is just one of the differences between God and us.  What grows out of the joint life of the Father and Son is a real Person, this Person is in fact the Third of the three Persons who are God."  - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity