Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Feast of Pentecost

The Feast of Pentecost is the third great day in the church calendar, after Christmas and Easter, celebrating the arrival of the Holy Spirit sent by Jesus ten days after his ascension. The story is told in the second chapter of Acts, of the sound of a great wind, the tongues of flame descending on the gathered disciples, and the miracle of understanding that was granted so that everyone suddenly knew the many languages of those around them.

The reason that people from so many different lands were in Jerusalem on that day is that it was already a Jewish holiday, the Festival of Weeks, or Shavu'ot, which occurs fifty days after the Passover. Similarly, Pentecost is generally considered to be fifty days after Easter, if you count Easter Sunday itself. If you don't, then it's forty-nine days, or "seven times seven," as in this Latin hymn (Jam Christus astra ascenderat) by Ambrose of Milan, Bishop of Rome during the fourth century.

Above the starry spheres,
To where he was before,
Christ had gone up, a promised gift
Upon the earth to pour.
At length had fully come,
On mystic circle borne
Of sev'n times sev'n revolving days,
The Pentecostal morn.

When, as the apostles knelt
At the third hour in prayer,
A sudden rushing sound proclaimed
The Holy Spirit there.
Forthwith a tongue of fire
Is seen on every brow,
Each heart receives the Spirit’s light,
The Word’s enkindling glow.

This gracious gift on all
Is mightily outpoured,
Who straight in diverse tongues declare
The wonders of the Lord.
While strangers of all climes
Flock round from far and near,
And their own tongue, wherever born,
All with amazement hear.

But some are faithless still --
Deny the hand divine;
And, mocking, jeer the saints of Christ
As full of new-made wine.
Till Peter, in their midst,
By Joel’s ancient word,
Rebukes their unbelief, and wins
The souls of all who heard.

So may that pow'r as then,
Descend to us today
That rushing wind, that fire of God,
Enflame our souls, we pray;
Creator and the Christ
And Spirit we adore,
O may the Spirit’s gifts be poured
On us forevermore.

Ambrose of Milan, 4th cent.
tr. Edward Caswall, 1849; alt.
Peter LaTrobe, 19th cent.

The Pentecost painting above is by Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, an eighteenth century artist from Germany. Some artistic depictions of the scene are rather staid, showing the disciples calmly sitting around a table, but it seems to me that things would have been rather more chaotic, as this painting suggests.

Two Years Ago: The Feast of Pentecost

One Year Ago: The Feast of Pentecost

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