Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pentecost = Easter ≠ Christmas

If you were to rank Christian festivals in order of their importance, what would come first, second, and then third? If we use our own cultural Christianity in North America as a gauge, Christmas comes first, with Easter a close second (and a side conversation could be had about Halloween, but let's not go there, other than as an aside).

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.


  1. Give me one example in Scripture where Jesus "trangresses traditional morality."

  2. This article first appears in the Saturday edition of the Northwest Arkansas Times.

  3. The examples are too numerous to mention, Kathy. Things like breaking the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, touching lepers, overturning money-changer tables at the temple, and so on and so on. I'm sure other readers can list others.

    He doesn't get married.

    He spends time alone with foreign women.


  4. I used to listen to my dad and his best friend have this conversation: "What is the most important festival of the church?" My dad's friend would say Easter, because that was the day that Jesus Rose from the dead, but then my dad would say, Christmas, because withotu Christmas, there wouldn't be a savior to die and rise for us. Then my dad's friend would (always) close with, "But without Pentecost, there wouldn't be a church!"

  5. Carol Warren2:20 PM

    Hurrah: finally someone (Clint) has articulated what I wanted to express but couldn't put into words. Clint you do this more often than you probably know

  6. Clint -- Those examples are ALL social mores and precepts of religious practice NOT morality. Morality has to do with the serious issues of life, as you well know. Jesus never trespassed against morality, as we see so many doing today.

  7. Kathy, just throwing this out there: don't social mores and norms define what we perceive to be morality?

    And one would think that those things that Clint mentioned, if they were notable enough to be recorded in multiple Gospel accounts, would also be shocking enough to be seen as a breach of morality — especially the way he dealt with sinners, who are by definition immoral?

    These things may not seem immoral to us because we've had 2,000 years to process them and learn from them. For a 1st Century Palestinian Jew, it was a much different kettle of kosher fish.

  8. Anonymous11:01 PM

    1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
    2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct.
    3. Virtuous conduct.
    4. A rule or lesson in moral conduct.
    (From the American Heritage Dictionary)

  9. So like I said, Christian faith, is actually about freedom and righteousness that sometimes transgresses traditional morality.

  10. This blog post and these comments have precisely identified some of the reasons why the Lutheran Church is collapsing.

    Anonymous defines Morality. Does he (or in modern parlance, Do they) go to the Scripture or the Church? No! They go to the American Heritage Dictionary -- a product of the CULTURE!

    Eric the Lutheran says "we perceive" morality to be norms and mores. Then "we" are the authority -- is that correct?

    The story of the woman caught in adultery says it all: Jesus was against throwing stones -- a Jewish practice -- but he told the woman to go and sin no more -- morality. Throwing stones was a norm of 2000 years ago. Adultery is immoral.

    There are absolutes, right and wrong.

  11. Here is the Kathy formula:

    1) Find some way, any way, to come to the conclusion that this blog post and comments are proof that the Lutheran Church dying (and never mind that we don't know, for example, whether someone who posts anonymously is Lutheran or not).

    2) Ignore any replies that are substantively unable to be used to support this thesis (including the author of the blog himself, who referenced Scripture both in his original post and in his replies).

    3) Ignore the actual topic of the blog post altogether, and instead misunderstand in a pointed fashion just one small part of it, and use it to illustrate why Lutherans are Protestant relativists hell bent on equivocation.

    4) Then mention something about moral absolutes, or the monolithic RC, or...

    Do I have it about right? I look forward to the next installment. However, I have decided, for the sake of sanity, not to respond to future posts, since the formula is just played out repeatedly ad nauseum.

  12. Thank you for lifting up the power of the Holy Spirit, the Festival of Pentecost, one of my most cherished Christian celebrations.

    1. of my most cherished of the Christian celebrations.