Trinity Sunday (Pentecost): Eastern, Western Christians embrace Trinity mystery

Stained glass window with Trinity mystery

The Trinity mystery on stained glass. Photo by Lawrence OP, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY MAY 27: A central and unfathomable mystery of the Christian faith takes center stage today, on the feast of Trinity Sunday. (Note: Trinity Sunday falls the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian Church each year, and on Pentecost Sunday in the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church.) White shines from the décor and vestments of most Western churches, as the faithful ponder the one God that is three Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. For many centuries, Christian leaders have taught that this mysterious truth must be believed by true followers of the faith.

Though the Holy Trinity is honored every Sunday, this day was officially introduced in the ninth century to focus on this particular doctrine.

For Christians, a joyous Gospel passage proclaims that God’s nature has been revealed: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” The sacrament of holy communion still is celebrated in the name of the Holy Trinity. Believers hold that all members of the Blessed Trinity are equal, uncreated and infinite.

It’s said that no mortal can truly grasp the concept of the Holy Trinity, but efforts can be made! Try picking a shamrock today, or a viola tricolor; light a candle with three flames; or decorate a home altar with symbols of the Trinity. (CatholicCulture.org has more ideas. And, if you’d like to learn more about the viola tricolor, visit the American Violet Society’s page for this delightful little blossom.

 

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Trinity Sunday: Christians celebrate Father, Son, Holy Spirit after Penetecost

Painting of man on cloud, old, another man, young, and dove flying above

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, MAY 22: It’s been one week since Pentecost, and for Western Christians, this marks Trinity Sunday. A celebration of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—Trinity Sunday is celebrated across Western liturgical churches. Though the early Church observed no specific day for the Holy Trinity, Thomas Becket (1118-70 CE) helped spread the observance of such a day across Western Christendom when he said that the day of his consecration would be held as a new festival for the Holy Trinity. Still, a day set aside solely for the Holy Trinity continued to vary by Sunday in several regions until Pope John XXII accepted the festival into the official calendar of the Western Church, in 1334 CE.

Note: The Thursday following Trinity Sunday is observed as the Feast of Corpus Christi. In some countries, this feast may be moved to the following Sunday.

According to Christian tradition: Following the Ascension of Jesus and Pentecost, Christians regard that the Holy Trinity has been fully revealed. Last week, signs of the Holy Spirit were evident in red banners, roses and doves; this week, vestments are white and a new season begins. The shamrock and viola tricolor pansy symbolize the Trinity, and in some churches, the Athanasian Creed is recited or read.

ACTIVITIES & MORE

Families, youth groups and others can teach St. Augustine’s simplified explanation of the Trinity to children today. Children can also go outdoors to search for shamrocks and pansies, or prepare a dinner with cloverleaf rolls and a three-in-one fruit salad. The table may be decorated with a “Trinity” candle, and a vase of collected tri-petal wildflowers.

Pentecost: Red flowers and doves for birthday of the Christian Church

“And 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.”
Acts 2

Church altar draped in red cloth with dove and flames on it, candles on top of cloth

An altar decorated for Pentecost. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, MAY 15: The ancient feast of Pentecost is marked with red drapery and vestments, symbols of the Holy Spirit, processions and holy sacraments. Though Pentecost originates from the Greek translation of the Jewish springtime festival now celebrated as Shauvot, it has been observed by Christians for centuries, and falls seven weeks after Easter.

In Christian tradition, Pentecost commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, women and other followers of Jesus, giving them the ability to speak in many languages for the purpose of spreading the Word of God. In this manner, some Christians regard Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.”

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS—This year, Pentecost is observed by the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church on June 19, as Pascha (Easter) was celebrated long after the Western Christian Easter.

TRADITIONAL STORY

According to the Book of Acts and Christian tradition: Approximately 120 followers of Christ were gathered on the morning that the Pentecost took place, in the Upper Room. Then, a roar of wind came into the room, and tongues of fire descended upon those in the room. With the gift of the tongues of fire, those gathered believed evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit; they began speaking many different languages. (Learn more from Catholic Culture.) Peter proclaimed the fulfillment of a prophesy.

When the group left the Upper Room, a crowd had gathered. While some accused the followers of Christ of sputtering drunken babble, Peter corrected them and declared that an ancient prophesy had been fulfilled. When the crowds asked what they could do, Peter told the people to repent and be baptized—which thousands did.

You can read the key passage from the second chapter of the Book of Acts yourself in this New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Rose petals strewn on floor

Rose petals fill a Roman church on Pentecost. Photo by Stefano Costantini, courtesy of Flickr

PENTECOST IN THE WEST:
FIRE AND DOVES

Pentecost services in the Western Christian Church often involve red flowers, vestments and banners, all representing the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire. Trumpets and brass ensembles may depict the sound of the “mighty wind” in a musical manner. There is even an old tradition of Holy Ghost holes in the roofs of churches, so that the Holy Spirit could “descend” upon the congregation; at Pentecost, the holes were decorated and a dove was lowered into the church. (Wikipedia has details.) In Italy, rose petals scattered from above represent the fiery tongues; in parts of England, Whit Fairs and Morris dancing were commonplace on Whitsunday, or Penecost.

 

Pentecost: Christians in red (and green) celebrate Holy Spirit’s descent

Overview of church with red decorations, people wearing red in thepews and priests walking down the center aisle

Pentecost Sunday services. Photo by MBK (Marjie), courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 8: The world’s 2 billion Eastern and Western Christians join in celebrating the ancient festival of Pentecost today, recalling the Holy Spirit’s descent upon the followers of Jesus. Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter Sunday. Another name for the feast, particularly in England and steeped in history, is Whit Sunday (from White Sunday, for the numerous baptisms that traditionally took place on Pentecost Sunday).

Prior to the advent of Christianity, the date of Pentecost was widely observed as Shavuot— and in fact, it was because of Shavuot that the followers of Jesus were gathered in the Upper Room, on the day that would become known as Pentecost in the Christian Church. Shavuot is still celebrated by Jews today. It was during this festival that the Apostles, Virgin Mary and other followers of Jesus would receive the Holy Spirit.

Did you know? Baptisms have been tradition on Pentecost Sunday for centuries, as Christians believe the followers of Jesus were baptized by the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room on Pentecost.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts that when the followers were gathered in one room, a sound like rushing wind came from heaven, filling the entire house; tongues of fire descended upon each of the Apostles. Suddenly, they began to speak in multiple languages—so that they could preach in many lands. In many American churches, Pentecost will be described as “the birthday of the church.”

EASTERN & WESTERN: A COLORFUL CELEBRATION

Whether Eastern or Western Christian, the feast of Pentecost is a rich, meaningful and colorful event. Orthodox churches are often decorated with greenery and flowers—similar to the Jewish tradition for Shavuot—and the feast lasts a full three days. (Find more at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) The Afterfeast of Pentecost continues for one week.

In Western churches, “seeing red” is a bit of an understatement—priests, ministers, choir members and even congregation members often wear the color red, reflecting the joy of the fire of the Holy Spirit. (Get a Catholic perspective from Global Catholic Network.) Red banners are hung from walls and ceilings, and the brass ensembles provide music today, in audio representation of the “mighty wind” that filled the Upper Room on Pentecost.

Did you know? During the Middle Ages, cathedrals in Western Europe were given Holy Ghost holes—small openings in the roof—so that the Holy Spirit could descend upon the congregation. At Pentecost, the Holy Ghost holes were decorated with flowers, and in some regions, dove figures were lowered through the holes while the story of Pentecost was being read.

Across the Christian community, Pentecost is among the most ancient of feasts: Paul noted its celebration and prominence among Christians in the 1st century CE. (Wikipedia has details.)

IN THE NEWS:
AMERICA’S CATHOLIC PRIEST SHORTAGE

As crowds pour into church for Pentecost Sunday services today, many congregations must face a new reality: nationally, one in five Catholic parishes does not have a resident priest. What’s more, the average age of priests is 63, and seminary enrollment isn’t growing. (Read the story from USA Today.) Meanwhile, America’s Catholic population is, in fact, on the rise. While the number of Catholic priests in America has dropped 33 percent since 1975, America’s Catholic population has risen a whopping 43 percent during the same time period.

In response to the people’s need for more priests, the Vatican has asked an advisory board of bishops to gather in Rome for a summit addressing the topic this October.

Pentecost: Orthodox Christians count 50 days from Pascha

Man in black robe with green stole waves hand over long table of foods before onlookers

Pentecost feasts are extensive in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, JUNE 23: The Godhead has been revealed and the mission of Jesus is fulfilled: In the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, today is the feast of Pentecost. Fifty days following Great Pascha (Easter), Orthodox Christians recall the ancient day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. As is written in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples began speaking in languages they had not previously known; those nearby were awestruck when they overheard uneducated fishermen speaking God’s praises in alien tongues. (Learn more from OrthodoxWiki.) Eastern Christians believe the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, and thus the full Trinity had been revealed. For this reason, today’s feast is alternatively called Trinity Day.

In most Eastern Orthodox congregations, Pentecost services begin the evening prior to the feast. The Great Vespers of the evening give way to the Matins service of the day, and a special Kneeling Vespers is performed; although kneeling during Liturgy is suspended during the Paschal season, the suspension is lifted at Pentecost. (Get details from the Orthodox Church in America and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) Liturgical readings and hymns will begin a “new year” of counting today, as each week they are read in terms of “weeks after Pentecost.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Monday after Pentecost is the Feast of the Holy Spirit; the Sunday following is the Feast of All Saints.

PENTECOST: Down the Holy Ghost Hole with doves and petals

View forward of church decorated in red banners

A Pentecost vigil at Dulce Nombre Church in Honduras. Photo courtesy of Flickr

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.

Tongues of FlameFifty 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.‘”

‘WHITSUNDAY’:
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.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)