Light the candles, kiddies: it’s the birthday of the church. Pentecost is the day when, according to the Acts narrative, the Holy Spirit descended upon a bunch of hopeful but still frightened disciples and filled them with the power to live out all the things Jesus had taught them.
“It is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus had told them before his arrest, “for if I do not go away the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” Obviously Pentecost, or Shavu’ot, the Festival of Weeks, has its own, much older, significance in Judaism. But Christians celebrate Pentecost as the day Jesus’ promise was fulfilled, and the Holy Spirit was poured out upon those first disciples, enabling Emmanuel, God-with-us, to be with all of us, at all times and everywhere. From that point on, nobody would have to break open a roof or cross a lake to be near him. We have only to pay attention; he is right here, closer than my own pulse.
That Jesus had to go away to send the Holy Spirit to his followers has always struck me as a glimpse into the mysterious inner dynamics of the Trinity. We’ll all be thinking about that a lot more next week on Trinity Sunday, as preachers around the world try to speak on the subject for more than five minutes without lapsing into heresy. (The smart ones will probably stop at five minutes and sit down.)
But Pentecost was the day when a rag-tag band of ordinary folk who chronically didn’t get it, got it, in a huge way. At Jesus’ ascension, some of them were still asking when he was going to set up his earthly kingdom. After Pentecost they saw how irrelevant earthly kingdoms are, and they never looked back (though it must be admitted that the Church has looked back plenty of times since). Pentecost is the day when Jesus’ followers went from being a class of C students to the very Body of Christ, as Paul described us (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:27).
Today we celebrate the day that Body was born, once again, on earth. It’s a second Christmas, the mirror image of the first. It doesn’t get nearly as much attention. But that’s probably just as well, because while the world makes no special effort to sell us more stuff, we can quietly celebrate the day that makes it possible for us to be the Body of Christ. Merry Pentecost, everyone!