On Wind and Fire

Many Christian communities are celebrating Pentecost today (Sunday, June 12).

It is one of the festivals in the Christian liturgical year that recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Pentecost is celebrated seven weeks (50 days) after Easter Sunday, which celebrates Jesus’ return to life after his violent death. Historically and symbolically the festival is related to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus, and is celebrated 50 days after Passover.

One of the scripture passages that may be read today in church gatherings around the world commemorates the events of 2000 years ago in a house in Jerusalem:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem devout people, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because every person heard them speak in their own language. (Acts 2:1-6).

I have fond memories of Pentecost celebrations when the church would be decorated with red, to symbolize fire, and children would come dancing into the sanctuary with colourful ribbons fluttering behind them, representing the heavenly wind that accompanied the Spirit. There would be music that would evoke the experience of the Spirit, like the Taizé song ‘Veni Sanct Spiritus’ (Come Holy Spirit). It would start out with a simple base refrain to which one by one other voices would be added until finally there would a rich and powerful blend of harmonies. There was often a sense of joy and celebration at these events and an appreciation of the diversity of our community (as symbolized by the variety of languages spoken) and the sense of unity in the common experience of the Spirit in our lives.

At the root of the Pentecost celebration is the Christian affirmation that God is not just an external supernatural being, but is experienced as the life force that flows through all that is. Sometimes this God is called Spirit and is identified with the wind that vitalizes and animates forests and all that has life and breath. At other times this Spirit is identified with our very breath as an indwelling divine presence, source of wisdom that guides us to the fullness of being. When this divine life force comes upon us and is awakened in our awareness, it calls us into a new state of living. When we allow this Spirit of Wisdom to animate us it results in qualities of living that St. Paul, a first century sage of the Christian life, calls the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The story of Pentecost is the classical Christian biblical story which suggests that Spirit-filled people can step beyond tribal boundaries and speak the language of their hearers and respond to a call to a new humanity, a new way of being a caring and compassionate community in service to the world.

So we Christians gather this Sunday to celebrate this capacity of wind and fire in us and to re-awaken our commitment to the Spirit of God in our midst, as Jesus showed us.

Originally appeared in the Times Colonist on June 12, 2011.

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