Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Terror of Pentecost

A recent posting to the web site of a main-line denominational judicatory urges the churches within its geographical boundaries to “observe” the Day of Pentecost as “the birthday of the Church. “  Churches were encouraged to share their plans for Pentecost, which would be published on the judicatory web site. 

A significant number responded, and the overwhelming favorite was the church that planned to worship and celebrate with a birthday party.  The party was to take place during worship with birthday cake and punch used as the elements for Holy Eucharist, and the people were encouraged to sing “Happy Birthday to Jesus’ Church.”

Many comments come to mind, but I will forgo such comments with a question…whatever happened to the terror of Pentecost?

Pentecost was not and should not be seen as a cake and punch celebration.  The disciples were terrified over the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of their Lord.  They were hiding in fear for their lives and with uncertainty about what they were supposed to do.   Then came the terrifying experience of “the rush of a violent wind,” the “tongues of fire” that rested on each one of them, and the discovery that they had the ability to speak in languages other then their own.  They moved from fear and uncertainty to faith and certainty, from being frightened disciples to courageous prophets.

The cake and punch celebration is just one of an addition to the growing list of ways Pentecost, other festivals of the church year, and even weekly worship, is being trivialized.  I suspect that this trivialization is a way to avoid the terror of Pentecost, which brings with it a power of speech and witness that many in the Church would seek to avoid.

That said there are those churches, which attempt in small ways to bring the meaning of Pentecost closer to the reality of the experience of the coming of the Holy Spirit.   In such churches, on the Day of Pentecost, the Sacrament of Baptism is administered, sometimes along with the Rite of Confirmation and the reception of new members.   It is not an uncommon custom for men and women to be ordained to the pastoral ministry of the Church, or some other form of ministry.  There is often music and hymns sung that have a Pentecostal theme, and worshipers are encouraged to wear red, the liturgical color of the day, and this is all well and good and proper.

However, suppose this Pentecost the presence of the Holy Spirit in wind and fire was manifested in our congregations, and instead of cowering in our safe spaces trying to figure out what it is that God is calling us to be and to do, we instead accepted the wind and the fire of the Spirit to become prophets and apostles, proclaiming the good news of the gospel in different tongues to all whom we met.

This is a terrifying aspect of our life of faith and the living out of our baptism, because we recall that the fate of prophets and apostles was (and continues to be) martyrdom.   

The Church has struggled in recent years to proclaim the good news of salvation to eternal life.   Millions of dollars have been spent on “marketing” the faith through various forms of electronic media, and the use of slogans and images that have little or no relationship to the Church’s call to proclaim Christ to the world.  I suspect the Church does this because it is infinitely safer and far more self-satisfying than the martyrdom of prophets and apostles.

The word, which comes to mind in direct relation to Pentecost, is evangelism, which seems to terrify Christians more than the possibility of a mighty wind and tongues of fire.   Pentecost is about evangelism, not the accosting of people in the streets, or handing out tracts at the mall, or the use of slick slogans and advertising, but the evangelism that is a witness to faith through words and actions that reflect the mind of Christ.

I believe the Spirit moves in our midst in ways that the Church does not discern because the church is not seeking that discernment through a life that is disciplined by prayer.  My perspective is informed by being a brother of a religious community, the Order of Corpus Christi, which is an evangelical catholic order of those mainly from the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, which, through disciplined prayer, consistently seeks to discern the Spirit’s will for the mission and witness of the Order.  From time to time the discernment comes without much effort, but most often fervent and extensive prayer is required.

Finally, The Day of Pentecost is terrifying because it takes us to places that we would rather not have to go, but must go because the Spirit of God is leading us to go in his way.   In the end we cannot do otherwise.

Send down, O God, upon your people the flame of your Holy Spirit,
and fill with the abundance of your sevenfold gift
the Church you brought forth from your Son’s pieced side.

May your life-giving Spirit lend fire to our word
and strength to our words.
Send us forth to the nations of the world
to proclaim with boldness your wondrous work
of raising Christ to your right hand.

We make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of
the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.1

Richard Hammond Price, OCC    ©June, 2011

1(Scripture-related collects for Years A, B and C 
from the Sacramentary, Cambridge Press 1997.)


  1. My first reaction (well, after a deep and mournful sigh) was to wonder what adaptation they created for "pin the tail" on someone or something.

    I've been thinking lately that the "birthing" of the Church (as opposed to a cake and punch birthday party) might really have been Ascension. It too is a shocking, terrifying day on the church year calendar. Our Lord INTENTIONALLY leaves! And the disciples are then in the temple daily -- worship consumed them. It makes Pentecost all the more terrifying to think of fire and wind and God unleashed, unstoppable.

    Post-Christian churches seem to miss the point that WE do not control situations any more than we control God. Wind? Fire? Terrifying indeed!

    Thank you good Father for keeping us mindful of the deeper Truth we are called to proclaim.

    Br Randy