Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost and I suppose many of you are already well acquainted with its beginnings. But for those who are not, I propose that we revisit its origins and hopefully broaden your understanding of what others refer to as a classic Christian Festival. And for those who think they already know its background, well, maybe you’ll pick up some things you thought you alreadyknew but actually don’t.
I suppose a good place to start is to be acquainted with the reason behind the need to revisit its beginnings. The need, I think, comes out of the often erroneous understanding that when Christians celebrate events connected to their identity and their journey as a faith community, they also have that assumed certainty that what they do are particular to Christianity, meaning, the things they do and observe are truly intrinsic part of the faith and practice of the Church in general and of their church denomination in particular.
So for example, just because we have the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus as it relates to the Mystery of the Incarnation or that we have the Cross as the true icon for our understanding of the Salvation History or that we have Easter Lilies and Easter Eggs connected with our celebration of the Day of Resurrection, that we automatically claim them as our own stories and no one else’s. It is no wonder then that when we hear others tell similar stories but not about Jesus, we find them quite annoying, to say the least.
Another example is what we celebrate today. Today, Christians throughout the world are in concert with their celebration of the Day of Pentecost. Their ways may vary as in the kinds of hymns they sing or of other external reminders like our “red-ding” of the church.
The thread that binds all this is that we all think it’s our story alone. The Feast of Pentecost is one of the holy days observed by the entire Christian Church and we’re right in making that claim. What we often fail to acknowledge, however, is that it has its origins traceable to the Jewish part of our Judeo-Christian heritage. Pentecost was not originally a Christian Festival. It was a Jewish Festival, a harvest festival, but it became an important holy day for us, Christians, because of what happened on that particular Pentecost.
It was when the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples; in a manner best described by Luke, believed to be the author of the Book of Acts. In his account, we read about images of what happened on that particular Pentecost; images such as the rush of a violent wind and the tongues of fire; images which have now become identified with the Christian holy day of the Day of Pentecost. What transpired on that particular Pentecost, along with the other account of the giving of the same Holy Spirit by the Resurrected Christ on what is now referred to as Easter Day, have helped in the shaping of the celebration we now call Pentecost Sunday.
Of the several powerful imageries related to Pentecost, what often appeals to me most is the association of Fire with the Holy Spirit.
"Fire" and "Holy Spirit"; these, to me, are powerful images of destruction and rebirth. By its very nature, fire is destructive; it destroys and consumes everything it touches; reduces everything to a state of nothingness.
The devastation that fire creates is not totally unknown to many of us and some may have a more direct experience than others. Few days ago, fire claimed the lives of two
firefighters in their line of duty. Down south and east of us, the raging fire in the Arizona-New Mexico border has already claimed more than 430,000 acres and has crossed the state border and continues to burn. San Francisco
There is no doubt that as illustrated by this and other similar stories, fire is destructive. And yet, the same act of destroying old and decaying trees also promises new, healthy and vigorous ones to grow in their stead, when time comes. Fire destroys but it also cleanses.
And so it is with the Holy Spirit, I think. The Holy Spirit is like a cleansing fire when we let it dwell in our lives. It will burn and destroy the old and rotten part in us and replenish it, in due time, with new life. It will devour, like fire, the rotting trees of selfishness within us; the dying and sickened trees of pride and envy that lurk deep in us; it will raze down the wild bushes of anger, doubt and mistrust that have become too thick in us.
They are images of destruction but not for long. In due time, by nature’s way of replenishing its terrain of new life, soon, there will be the symbols of new life sprouting from the ground. New and healthier plants will bud and bloom and the once seared ground will flourish with new reflections of the grand design of the Great Artificer of the Universe.
So will we be, my dear Friends in Christ, after we allow the raging and destroying fire of the Holy Spirit do their work. Our new life will flourish with beautiful flowers of kindness and gratefulness; there will be the sweet smell of the fragrance from our tender plants of love, mercy and forgiveness and the growing trees of our fortified faith. Yes, this will be the new landscape supplanting the once sinful and dying terrain of our old self.
And we have proof of this transformation in the lives so many people. We know of so many saints whose new, productive and godly lives were the result of their willingness to let the raging fire of the Holy Spirit burn down their old sinful ways. They often claim that they have been “born again” by the power of the Holy Spirit and they are right in their claim.
The Holy Spirit, whose coming we celebrate, continues to come our way and sends out its sparks from its burning flints, hoping that our lives will catch it and we’ll be “set on fire”. Quite often, though, we are just too quick to put this kind of fire out. We are just too scared to really get our lives reworked by the Spirit. Perhaps, we should be bold enough to let it do what it needs to do, that is, transforming us into a new being, reflecting the beautiful creation we are meant to be.
And so I hope that the next time we sing the hymn “Come, Holy Spirit”, that we should really mean it to come down upon us and that we are allowing the same Spirit to start “firing” us up. Let the “burning” begin in our lives so that we may rise into newness of life, bud and bloom as reflections of God’s splendor and become worthy children of God.
“Veni, Sancte, Spiritus”