So, Christmas, then Easter, and then?
Here's the interesting truth. Within Christian tradition, the highest festival is and always has been Easter itself. Here cultural Christianity and historic Christianity overlap.
However, the elevation of Christmas is of later vintage. The incarnation of the Word of God in human form is a big deal, no question, but as a feast day and festival, it never was as central.
There is another festival in the Christian tradition that has always ranked as high as Easter, the second great feast of the church. Unfortunately it's just that we don't give it as much cultural credential as we should. This festival comes fifty days after Easter, and so is named for those fifty (pente) days--Pentecost.
This year this festival just so happens to fall on Memorial Day weekend. I'd venture to guess that more people are observing Memorial Day than Pentecost this weekend. Am I right?
In historical perspective, however, Christians rank Pentecost as the other great feast of the church because it is the celebration and commemoration of the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and sent by the risen and ascended Christ, upon the early Christian community. Since the Holy Spirit is the continuing presence of Christ with the people of God, giving life, inspiring the continuing preaching of God's Word, hovering over the sacraments, and giving its many gifts, there is ample reason to see why the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is important for the church
If you have never heard or read the story, you can read it in Acts 2:1-6, and you can read Christ's promise to send the Holy Spirit in John 15:26-27.
If Easter is proof of the life-giving power of God in Christ beyond death, Pentecost is proof of the life-giving power of God continuing not just in Christ, but in all those who have heard the gospel and are now empowered by the Spirit.
Pentecost is an evocative day. Christians think of fire, baptism, breath, wind, languages, life. They often wear red on this day (fairly easy to do in Razorback country). They baptize on this day (our own Pentecost worship will include the baptism of a child). Some Christians get quite animated in celebration of the Spirit. Christians of my tribe (Lutheran) go crazy by lighting votive candles or changing the paraments to red.
I do wonder why we pay less attention to Pentecost than Easter or Christmas. Perhaps it is less material, more "spiritual." Perhaps it is a little more difficult to comprehend, because the face of Christianity (Christ) goes away and ascends to the Father and then sends this Spirit. Wind is hard to depict or capture. It's a strange situation, Christ going away that his Spirit might come. Presence in absence. An enigma that is also life-giving is more difficult to depict or contain.
It's a strange day. Fifty days earlier Christians were celebrating Christ's resurrected presence with them. Then he goes away, and sends this wild Spirit. Christ isn't around or available. Christ is with the Father. It is the Holy Spirit, sent by them, who continues to make Christ know, according to Christian faith and tradition.
And that is just a little weird and wild, because we live in a culture that likes to put religious faith into neatly wrapped up categories, making faith about rules and morals and customs and guidelines. If God is on the loose, alive in the Spirit, in even just a few of the ways signified by Pentecost, then religious faith, Christian faith, is actually about freedom and righteousness that sometimes transgresses traditional morality.
The Spirit is the spirit of life and energy and hope and community and joy. Or as we say in the confirmation of the spirit's presence at each baptism: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, spirit of joy in God's presence.
Which is why Pentecost is my favorite feast of the church year. Remember to wear your red.