“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” Acts 2:1-3.
This past Sunday, 7 weeks after Easter, was Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost (literally 50 days after Easter) is the name given to the events of Acts 2 wherein the Holy Spirit, the promised gift of Christ, descends upon the earliest Christians. Those who observe the holiday nowadays refer to the celebration as “the birthday of the Church.”
Sadly, many churches throughout America likely made no mention of this holiday, nor knew it was taking place at all. This is quite sad, as I will hope to explain.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he promised his earliest disciples that there would be another gift sent for them. Still unsure of what to make of all the dying and rising business, many of the earliest followers were likely unsure of what would take place. Their leader now gone, was it really worth it to spread his message of the Kingdom of God across the land? Fortunately, the economy of salvation was not finished, and the Holy Spirit came upon those early believers, empowering them to do just as Jesus had instructed them. They began to preach the Gospel throughout all of the land, taking it to both Jewish and Gentile areas. Not long after, the Church came into existence as the followers of Christ multiplied, eventually requiring some sort of structure. The Church was born, and those events are the reason why you and I believe the gospel today.
Yet, many see no need for the continual reflection upon Church history, because they think the present is all that truly matters. But, transfer this motif into secular society, and ta-dah you have the Fourth of July celebrations and the plethora of other nations’ and groups’ founding days. More to the point, these secular holidays are often embraced just as much by local churches today as what they would consider the main Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Now of course, I do not wish to necessarily downplay those secular holidays. I happen to take part in all of them myself. However, as Christians, shouldn’t it be important to take at least one day out of the year and remember our origins as the Church at-large has practiced for nearly 1800 years?
For the bible-centric churches, this is not some appeal to respect the Catholic or Orthodox traditions, but rather a re-directing back towards the story of Acts, an account which we all hold dear. The founding of the Church was a supernatural event in which the 3rd person of the Trinity began to empower believers to share their good news with others. This process, regardless of whether or not you think the true church only started in 1517, has continued through this day, and is a landmark event worth remembering in our churches. It helps people to remember that the Church has historical roots, and those roots are given to us through history to learn from and admire. Church history is one way that God speaks to us today. Many Christians have been encouraged in their own faith through the example of those who went before them, especially those pioneers recognized during Pentecost. Again, an understanding of what God has done in the past (e.g. the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost) form the basis of our own faith today, though we are far removed temporally. Through historical record, we know that the Church celebrated Pentecost in the mid 3rd century at the very latest.
Admittedly, after spending close to two years in the Episcopal Church while away at college, I have grown accustomed to the Church calendar. I have to admit that I miss it greatly. But it is not only the Episcopal Church, nor the Roman Catholic Church for that matter, who draws its ancestral roots back to the day of Pentecost. All Christians share in this heritage. Further, celebrating this universal event can do nothing but help the ongoing process of ecumenism. Sharing history together is one step towards living in real unity with one another. I’m also tempted to think that the neglect of Pentecost is directly correlated to many churches’ neglect of the Holy Spirit. But we must remember that the Holy Spirit plays the central role in the continual empowerment of the Church and its members even today. The liturgical color red, used on Pentecost Sunday, signifies the fire of the Holy Spirit as depicted in the New Testament.
Pentecost was not merely a one time, unrepeatable event. Rather, it was the beginning of a movement, the same movement that you and I are part of this day. Isn’t that worth remembering? Or at least noting in passing at the very least?
P.S. Next Sunday is the equally important holiday, “Trinity Sunday,” in which the Church celebrates the full revelation of God as Trinity. I’ll spare you all a post reacting to the neglect of that holiday next week. Just count this one as performing double duty.