Today is the great and holy feast of Pentecost, one of the most important feasts of the Christian year. Sadly it’s a feast whose significance is often undermined. In many churches, it will likely be reduced to a yearly reminder that Christians believe the Holy Spirit to be One of the Three Persons of the Trinity, a kind of annual vaccine against the old and sadly accurate Onion headline, “God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity” due to “the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost’s duties.” Or, even worse, many churches will reduce the feast to a rather lame commemoration of “the birthday of the Church,” as though what God was doing at Pentecost was starting an institution. Neither of these are in and of themselves ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, but they’re just wholly and utterly inadequate. And so, I’d like to spend some time here exploring what this feast means for us as Christians.
Like all the major Christian feasts, Pentecost has its origins in a Jewish Holy Day, in this case the feast of Weeks, celebrated seven weeks (i.e., a ‘week of weeks’) after the Passover. The feast was originally connected to the end of the seven-week grain harvest. The feast therefore had connotations of fruition, fulfillment and thanksgiving (much like our own Thanksgiving celebrations). These meanings flowing from the feast’s role in the agricultural cycle were echoed in the theological meaning the feast took on, as a celebration of the receipt of the Law. Moses’ receiving the Tablets of the Law was understood as the fulfillment of Israel’s liberation from Egypt, and therefore as the sealing of the gift of salvation and freedom.
While, as far as I know, it is unclear as to when or why the feast took on this theological significance, a clue may possibly be found in ancient Jewish numerology. In Jewish numerology of the time, as the number of days in the week ordained by God, seven was a symbol of perfection and wholeness. By adding one to perfection, you get something apocalyptically good. (This is why it was significant for early Christians that Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week, day after the Sabbath, 7+1 = 8, the apocalyptic “Day of the LORD.”) By this numerological logic, a week of weeks (7 x 7) is, as perfection squared, hyperperfect. And if you add one to that, you have 50, the hyperperfect day of God’s action. And indeed, the word ‘Pentecost’ comes from the Greek for ‘fifty.’ The revolutionary significance of the number 50 can elsewhere be seen in the Jubilee years enshrined in the Law, wherein every fifty years, slaves and prisoners were to be freed, debts forgiven, and land ownership restored, as a symbol of God’s liberating and saving power.
But what does all this have to do with the Holy Spirit? Well, as much as Israel celebrated the receipt of the Law as the completion of God’s saving activity begun at Passover, the prophets also understood that God wasn’t done yet. Isaiah prophesied of the reign of a true King, who would rule according to a sevenfold activity of the Holy Spirit:
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and might,
The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. (Isa 11.1-2)
Jeremiah, in the midst of the desolation of the Exile, prophesied that Israel’s restoration would be be greater than what had been lost, and that what had been a Law of external commandments would become internal and intimate. He said:
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD.” (Jer 31.33f)
Similarly, Joel prophesied of a time when the Holy Spirit — historically associated with the work of a few special people like prophets and kings — would descend on the whole people, not just the chosen few:
And it shall come to pass afterward
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
And also on My menservants and on My maidservants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days. (Joel 2.28f)
By the time of Jesus, prophetic activity in Israel was largely believed to have ceased, and, with Israel again in captivity and ruled by lackluster puppet kings and a priesthood that was more concerned with keeping the peace than serving God, many believed they were in a period of God’s absence. And so there was a heightened longing for God to return in a powerful way to God’s people. This helps to explain why Luke puts such a strong emphasis in his Gospel on the return of prophetic activity surrounding the coming of Jesus (see, for example Luke 1.46ff, 1.68ff, and 2.29ff). Indeed, Luke focuses on the work of the Spirit throughout his Gospel, which is the first half of a two-volume work (alongside the Acts of the Apostles) I like to call “The Acts of the Holy Spirit according to Luke.” It should come as no surprise then that Luke returns to this theme of the return of the Spirit at the end of his Gospel, with Jesus telling his disciples they will receive “the Promise of the Father” and will be “endued with power from on high” if they wait in Jerusalem after his Ascension (24.49).
And so, that first Christian Pentecost was loaded with all this meaning, hope, and expectation: The risen Jesus, just days before the first major feast after he had been raised from the dead, a feast that recalls and makes present the giving of the Law as the seal of God’s salvation of Israel, which Law was also prophesied to at some point in the future be written on the hearts of the people, makes a promise to his disciples: a promise that they would “not many days from now be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” which Spirit had been prophesied to one day be poured out on all the people in a heretofore unfathomable way. All this in a powder keg of a city on heightened alert, occupied by Rome, riven by its own religious and political factions, and filled with pilgrims from every corner of the known world.
According to Luke’s account (Acts 2), what happens next is messy, chaotic, and unbelievable. On the day of the feast, there is “a sound from heaven like that of a rushing mighty wind,” filling the whole house, and accompanied by a visual manifestation like tongues of fire that falls upon each of those gathered. Suddenly they are “filled with the Holy Spirit” and begin to proclaim the Good News in languages they have never learned, throughout the packed streets of Jerusalem. A crowd quickly gathers — many are amazed but some scoff and claim they’re just drunks. Out of the chaos Peter stands up and proclaims that this the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, that what is happening is nothing short of the Apocalypse — not the end of the world (as commonly misunderstood), but the Day of God’s Revelation, when God would act once and for all, would flip the script, shatter all that was and has been, and rewrite history. PENTECOST IS THE REVOLUTION. PENTECOST IS — pardon my language — THE FUCKING APOCALYPSE! (To think that so many Christians will ‘celebrate’ it by singing “Happy Birthday” to the Church is embarrassing beyond belief.)
Peter then goes on to call out the authorities and people of Jerusalem for lynching Jesus and urging them to be baptized. Again, so often this gets conflated with becoming a member of the Church as an organization. But baptism isn’t about membership in a club; nor is it welcoming a baby into God’s family; nor is it a rite of passage signaling one’s maturity in faith: It’s about identifying wholly with the radical, sacrificial, self-effacing love of God, who in the words of Paul, “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a slave, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” It is a full identification with Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and Kingdom. If baptism is about ‘membership,’ this is what that membership means.
Going back to Acts, when the people are baptized they too all receive the Holy Spirit. Let’s not lose sight of how huge this is! The Holy Spirit, once believed to be reserved for kings and prophets, has now been potentially poured out to everyone, regardless of social status, language, religious origin, race, or culture. Everyone and anyone can be liberated into God’s Kingdom. (No wonder the authorities were always suspicious of Christians for the first few hundred years: Christians proclaimed a revolutionary Kingdom!)
Again, to become a Christian, to be baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, means to identify oneself wholly with Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It means to become, in Christ, another christ. Literally. ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed one’, as in ‘one anointed by the Holy Spirit.’ So if we are anointed by the same Spirit as Christ, then we become by grace all that he is: We too share in the sevenfold Spirit foretold by Isaiah: the Spirit of the LORD, the Spirit of Holiness, of Wisdom, of Understanding, of Counsel, of Power, Knowledge, and Humble Fear. We share in the same Spirit that hovered over the primordial waters, that is “everywhere present and filling all things, the treasury of blessings and giver of life.” We share in the Spirit through whom Jesus was made incarnate through the girl Mary, who fell upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan, who compelled him into the wilderness, and through whom Jesus healed, taught, and loved, and who raised him from the dead. We share in the one Spirit that, like the sun’s radiation, is one yet manifests itself in manifold ways, simultaneously uniting us (and here is where the little ditty about Pentecost being the birthday of the Church finds its truth — for we are always called, always saved together; but this is a consequence of Pentecost, not its goal) and diversifying us and our talents and vocations, empowering some with gifts of prophecy, others service, others teaching, encouragement, generosity, leadership, or mercy. We share the same Spirit that produces good fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness, and self control. We share in the same Spirit that fashioned and is constantly refashioning the cosmos. And therefore we are called to participate in this same work of recreating the world in the image and likeness of God. THIS IS AWESOME.
And so, this Pentecost, let us remember — please, for the love of God — what it is we are celebrating. Pentecost is about the apocalyptic fulfillment of God’s salvation. On this fiftieth day, after a full perfect week of weeks after Easter, we rejoice and celebrate that God has acted, pouring out the Holy Spirit upon God’s people, and in the fact that there is nothing that can now separate us from the loving, creative, transforming power of God.
Let us not lose sight of just how awesome this is. Let us, to cite the famed architect Daniel Burnham, “make no little plans.” Let us remember the words of Abba Joseph of the Egyptian desert, who when approached by a monk who asked him what he could do beyond his basic monastic rule, “stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’”
Amen! Amen! Amen! Alleluia!