By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 5/25/12 in The Madera Tribune
Many Christians will celebrate the birthday of their religion this Sunday, better known as Pentecost. Appropriately, this holy day has a Jewish origin and a Greek name.
Before taking a new meaning for followers of Jesus, it was a harvest festival that recalled when God dictated laws for the 12 tribes of Israel at Mount Sinai (aka Horeb). Foremost of these laws are the 10 Commandments, basic moral laws long revered by Jews and Christians alike. The festival received its ancient Greek name from the timing of that historic occasion, which scripture recorded as on “the 50th” day after the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt. In Hebrew it is known as the Festival of Weeks (Hag ha Shavuot).
Christians tend to forget all of that, however. For us, Pentecost evokes images of supernatural fire, wind, and preaching, which are key elements of the day’s description in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
On Shavuot in Jerusalem less than two millennia ago, a clamor like that of a tornado filled a place where perhaps as many as 120 devotees of Jesus were seated. Next, flames appeared to fall on each, resting gently without causing harm. Then, scripture says, they were filled with the spirit of God and began to speak of divine matters in a variety of languages they had never learned.
Such a spectacle drew a diverse crowd in the metropolis, which had many expatriates from across the ancient world for the Festival of Weeks. What these visitors heard initially and the preaching that followed — all expressed in their own native tongues — caused the idle spectators to embrace this new religion, a sect of Judaism that quickly expanded beyond it to reach peoples of every nation, ethnicity, and — fittingly enough — tongue.
The memoirs of the physician Luke only share a relatively small excerpt of the words voiced that day (Acts 2:14-40), but unsurprisingly they center on the “good news” (aka gospel) revealed by God.
This gospel is summed up perfectly and fully in Jesus.
In my lifetime, many have tried to express it in easily memorized phrases or citations (such as the ever-popular scripture reference at sporting events, “John 3:16”). But I hesitate to attempt the same, because the task of abridging the gospel daunts me. There is so much to divine revelation, both truth and mystery.
I also wonder if sometimes such pithy attempts can lose sight of one of the lessons of Christian Pentecost: what first impressed the onlookers in Jerusalem so long ago was that the Christians talked of God in a language each individual listener could understand.
Rather than catchphrases, the hearers needed a personal explanation, and more than that: an introduction to the person of Jesus. This was accomplished by following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God, not a script.
That said, imagine a world without shared terms, definitions, formulas, songs, and so on. Life would become a never-ending labor of re-invention and potential errors. Perhaps the ideal is as Augustine — an ancient bishop of Hippo, Africa — once advised: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things ‘charity’ (supernatural love).”
His last point is a vital one, because without love for others how could Christians ever reveal God to anyone? Surely the Christians at Pentecost were not only filled with the Spirit of God but supernatural love as well. As John, the cherished disciple of Jesus, wrote in a letter, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8)
With or without words, God surely touches our head and heart. Like us, our minds and hearts are unique, even when the same truth fills them.
English poet, novelist, and decorated soldier Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) romanced both sexes after World War I. Yet despite many relationships he spent his last two decades alone, and converted to Catholicism before his death.
In his poem “A Prayer at Pentecost,” Sassoon depicted his relationship with God as a two-part performance to be completed not by words but by quiet transformation:
“Master musician, I have overheard you, / Labouring in litanies of heart to word you. / Be noteless now. Our duologue is done. / Spirit, who speak'st by silences, remake me: / To light of unresistant faith awake me, / That with resolved requiem I be one.”