SUNDAY, MAY 19: Doves descend, rose petals blanket church floors and flames flicker—all as Christian symbols of “The Birthday of the Church” nearly 2,000 years ago. For Western Christians, this is widely regarded as the second most significant holiday of the year: Pentecost.
Fifty days following Easter, Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, Jesus’s mother Mary and others in what tradition says was the Upper Room in Jerusalem. The second chapter of the Book of Acts puts it this way: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.”
Yes, if you are a regular reader of this column, you know that this is the same “Pentecost” that is celebrated today as Shavuot, which is described in the previous holiday column in this series. Remember that Jesus and his followers were Jewish and followed Jewish religious customs, so naturally they would gather for this important traditional holiday. As Notre Dame historian Candida Moss just pointed out in a ReadTheSpirit interview, “Christians” didn’t widely emerge under that name until the end of the first century. What took them by surprise was this life-changing experience of the Holy Spirit on that day in Jerusalem.
THE FIRST DRUNK CHRISTIANS?
According to Christian tradition, this explosion of spiritual energy included a spontaneous ability to talk in the languages of other visitors to Jerusalem, giving Jesus’s followers an opportunity to begin communicating their message to many people. Of course, as Acts tells the story—they seemed drunk to their neighbors in Jerusalem. People made fun of their wild new enthusiasm.
Then, the The Apostle Peter proclaimed that the event was a fulfillment of an ancient plan. Acts says he declared: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says,I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.‘”
FROM WHITE TO RED
From its earliest days, Pentecost was a time to commemorate baptisms in the Western Christian Church; the nickname “Whitsun” or “Whitsunday” was soon attached to Pentecost, to signify the wearing of white. The nickname “Whit Sunday” remains in England today, where Whit Walks continue to take place and the processions often include brass bands and girls in white. In some areas of England, Morris Dancing and cheese rolling are popular Pentecostal activities. Outside of select English regions of the world, however, vestments, banners and décor bear a vibrant red color. Confirmations are celebrated, hanging banners declare the fire and joy of the Holy Spirit and many lay people wear red clothing to church. (Learn more about the Catholic view of the Holy Spirit from the Global Catholic Network.)
THE HOLY GHOST HOLE
Sicilian Pentecost vigils remarkably illustrate the Holy Spirit’s tongues of fire, as thousands of red rose petals are thrown from galleries over the congregation; modern practice has moved toward the stringing of hundreds of origami doves from the ceiling. (Get more information, and customs, at Fish Eaters.) In the Middle Ages, however, cathedrals and churches in Western Europe were built for this very purpose in that an architectural feature known as a Holy Ghost Hole was cut into the roof. (Wikipedia has details.) Symbolically, the Holy Ghost Hole allowed the Holy Spirit to descend upon the congregation at any given time, although at Pentecost the hole was adorned with flowers and a dove was lowered into the church. A wooden dove still descends over congregations in some regions, and Holy Ghost Holes can be seen in several European churches and cathedrals today.
THE ‘BIRTHDAY OF THE CHURCH’
Due to the events of Pentecost, many Christians now refer to this day as the “Birthday of the Church.” Brass ensembles and trumpets bring to mind the mighty winds of the Holy Spirit, while Scripture is popularly read in multiple languages. Pentecost Monday is a public holiday in much of Europe and some African nations.
Because of the East-West difference in dating Easter this year, Eastern Orthodox Christians will observe Pentecost on June 23.