This coming Sunday, May 20, the church celebrates the great feast of Pentecost, with all its rich imagery of fire from heaven, tongues of flame, and speaking in tongues. In the Western tradition at least, the day marks the church’s birthday. In old English, it was called Whit (White, or Holy) Sunday. Italians traditionally called it Pascha Rossa, Red Easter, giving some idea of its significance in the church calendar. In the Orthodox churches, the feast carries a significance second only to Easter.
Around the world, Pentecost is associated with some lovely and intriguing customs, including for instance:
In Italy it was customary to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues …. The Italian name Pascha rossa comes from the red colors of the vestments used during today’s Solemnity. In France, it was customary to blow trumpets during the Divine Service, to recall the sound of the mighty wind that accompanied the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost became the focus of many Spring customs. In different parts of rural Europe, Pentecost was traditionally associated with trees, especially the birch: Pentecost trees were planted, people made birch wreathes.
But where does the Pentecost idea come from? Although the familiar story that we know is in the Book of Acts, the Gospel of John manages to tell the story about Christ giving the Spirit without a word about tongues of fire, the rushing wind, or speaking in tongues. All that John says is “[Christ] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20.22).
We have to read the Acts account in terms of Luke’s two related books, his Gospel, and the Book of Acts, both written at the end of the first century. The two works have a neat symmetry. The Gospel begins and ends in Jerusalem, in the Temple, with people faithfully following the Jewish Law. In the sequel, Acts, we also begin in Jerusalem – but we end in Rome, as the church is set to spread throughout the world. Luke’s Gospel is set in the Jewish world, but Acts tells how God’s message breaks the bounds of Judaism and reaches out to all peoples. Pentecost is the turning point. It’s a book about breaking out, but also about breaking in – of God’s power breaking into the world.