a violent wind & tongues of fire

Sunday is Pentecost. Before I started this project, I didn’t know anything about Pentecost. I think I may have known it was a holiday, but I think I associated it first and foremost with Pentecostal Christianity, which I also didn’t (don’t) know much about except that it maybe had something to do with speaking “in tongues” and the laying-on of hands and possibly falling down and witnessing… whatever that might mean. Maybe I saw it in a movie once?

Turns out Pentecost is actually an ancient Jewish feast day (Shavuot) celebrating the first harvest (“first fruits”) and commemorating the day Moses received the Law (the Torah) from God on Mount Sinai. Wikipedia says, “On Passover, the nation of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.” I am feeling parallels between this and the corresponding Christian story: during Holy Week we were saved from sin by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and Pentecost is considered by many Christians to be the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit made the apostles speak in the languages of all nations, and Peter stood up and called for all those nations to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.

Here’s the whole thing, Acts of the Apostles 2:1-41 (New International Version) –

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘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.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”’

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

I’ve been listening (via iTunes U) this week to recorded lectures from a course on “the Historical Jesus” from Stanford University. I’m about three meetings in. The lecturer, Thomas Sheehan, spent one of the course meetings talking about apocalyptic — i.e. revelatory (the words mean the same thing) — literature, with regard specifically to the Book of David in the Old Testament and then the Book of Mark in the New Testament. His basic premise is that such literature is not written about the past so much as it is written about the present and future. According to my possibly-faulty recollection of his lecture, the Book of David, for example, was purportedly written circa the 600′s BCE and unearthed — revealed! — at a divinely-determined time — the 200′s BCE. In other words, it was written in the 200′s and contained lots of “prophecies” about what had happened in the years between which, oh look!, had come true. Then it went on to say: The beast (empire) that is now oppressing you, it too will be defeated. The point was to inspire hope and to suggest certain ways of approaching the problems of the present that the writers of the text believed to be the best ways. Politics!

There’s a lot of information in the lectures that I might have absorbed a bit better if I bothered to take notes, but a few of the other bits I remember seem relevant. One, Acts was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. Two, Luke was the second gospel to be written, at least fifty years after the death of Jesus. I’m a little unclear on the whole end-times / imminent-arrival-of-the-Kingdom-of-God thing and its presence in early Christianity (I think there’s a lecture on that coming up), but Sheehan did mention at one point that that emphasis had considerably faded by the time the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels, was written — such that in John a lot of things become (relatively) explicitly figurative that were previously literal. I guess that doesn’t have much to do with Pentecost, but I did get a little thrill from hearing it after writing this about John’s version of the Great Commission.

But, okay, Pentecost. The bit in Acts sounds pretty apocalyptic to me, and I mean that in both the usual sense with which people use the word, and the way Sheehan uses it, which is why I brought in the Sheehan thing to begin with. I do enjoy the fact that the apostles are actually drunk on the Holy Spirit. But the whole thing reeks of “repent or else!”

Fortunately, I’m not even really a Christian, much less a Biblical literalist, and I can interpret the scriptures as I see fit. Or, as the case may be, borrow the interpretations of others. Today I like that of Nadia Bolz-Weber (thanks Ben for the link), a Lutheran pastor in Denver who writes a pretty awesome blog. Today she posted this Pentecost sermon, in which she emphasizes that the apostles were all hanging out together rather than mixing with Jerusalem’s other denizens. The Holy Spirit, she says — and she gives the Holy Spirit a feminine pronoun, which definitely helps win me over — came in to rustle ‘em up and make ‘em diversify. To make sure that the Church — the Body of Christ — would be inclusive of every nation. Not a bad beginning.

Here’s how Pentecost is generally celebrated in Western churches (Catholic and Protestant), according to Wikipedia (gotta love it): The color red is displayed everywhere, for the fire of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes there are red balloons (happy birthday, Church!). Priests and even laypeople wear red to celebrate (I might get in on that). Symbols of or words associated with the Holy Spirit are displayed, such as the “Fruit of the Spirit” (which I had not heard of but which is another thread to follow in my journey here, and which reminds me of the first fruits presented at the Temple for Shavuot… right? Anyway, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” cf. Galatians 5:22-23). Red flowers and flowering plants are also on display, symbolizing “the renewal of life, the coming of the warmth of summer, and the growth of the church at and from the first Pentecost.” Brass instruments often feature to recall the “mighty wind.” Sermons may be repeated in foreign languages. Some cathedrals from the Middle Ages feature “Holy Ghost holes” through which dove figures were lowered during Pentecost services; other churches strew rose petals over their congregants to recall the tongues of fire. These days sometimes origami cranes are used! Pentecost is also often chosen for the ordination of clergy and the Confirmation of young people. Ironically, Pentecostal congregations often ignore the holiday of Pentecost.

The time between Ascension and Pentecost is traditionally a time of fasting and/or prayer vigils, in recognition of the time the apostles drew together and awaited the Holy Spirit (though I’m not sure there’s much indication that they knew that they were waiting for something). I suppose I’ve used the time between Ascension and Pentecost to do some reflection, too, about this project. Turns out Christianity is a big, big subject that I know a lot less about than I thought I did. Maybe I should be a little more systematic in my explorations? One major denomination per month? Or some time spent on the Creeds (Nicean, Apostles’ — or are they the same?), or the Sacraments? Ordinary Time starts on Monday (or Tuesday? I’m not sure what Pentecost Monday is all about), so I’ll have some time between holidays to consider all of these things. Unless I want to mark every saint’s day, or some. I guess we’ll find out!

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