Happy Birthday, Dear Church
When my nephew Walker was little, I passed on to him a sacred ritual we call “The Trinity Handshake.” It involves greeting one another in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, while clasping hands in a manner corresponding to each member of the Godhead. For the Father, we employ a straightforward handshake. For the Son, we merge into an informal “hand hug.” And for the Spirit, we keep our thumbs interlocked while fluttering our fingers to the side like wings, raising our arms to launch our “dove.” Trust me, it’s cool.
For months, we faithfully observed our handshake every time we met. Then, one sleepy Saturday, I forgot to extend my hand. “Do the spooky thing!” he said.
“The spooky thing?” I asked, confused. “You know,” he glared, exasperated. “We need to do the ghost!”
Apparently, my attempts to catechize Walker had him picturing the third member of the Trinity more like Casper than the Spirit of the Living Christ. We needed help.
A Holy Ghost day
If you attend a church that observes the liturgical calendar, you know that there’s a day—Pentecost Sunday—set aside to remember a moment in history when it became clear that the Holy Ghost isn’t so much spooky as wildly powerful, creative, and unpredictable. However, if you attend a non-liturgical church, you may have no idea when Pentecost Sunday occurs. (Spoiler alert: This year, Pentecost Sunday falls on June 4.)
I’ve been attending non-liturgical churches my entire life. Even though many of these churches have begun to embrace many of the gifts of the liturgical calendar (Advent, Ash Wednesday, and Lent come to mind), I don’t recall observing Pentecost Sunday even once. So, I decided to do some digging.
The first thing I’ve discovered in my research is that—as liturgical Christians know well—in the church calendar, the season of Eastertide isn’t a single Sunday but a 50-day hallelujah. It makes sense that if we’re going to offer 40 Lenten days to remember the wilderness, we should set aside at least 50 resurrection days to celebrate the victory.
And here’s what’s intriguing: The seven-week Eastertide crescendo reaches its final crest on Pentecost Sunday. After that, the calendar moves from Eastertide to Ordinary Time, and every subsequent Lord’s Day for the next 25 weeks is marked by its distance from Pentecost Sunday (from the “First Sunday after Pentecost” to, right before Advent, the “Last Sunday after Pentecost.”)
Pentecost, according to the calendar, is one of the hinge points in the Christian story. So why haven’t I known much about it?
A wild story
Maybe part of the reason those of us from non-liturgical and, especially, not-so-charismatic traditions tend to overlook Pentecost Sunday is the fact that the incident it celebrates really does seem just a little spooky. It’s that moment in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit showed up in spectacular fashion.
Ten days after Christ’s ascension, a band of his disciples and family were in Jerusalem celebrating the annual “Feast of Weeks” (Shavuot)—also known by the Greek name, Pentecost. They were gathered together when suddenly there was “a violent wind,” and tongues of fire came to rest above the head of every person there. They were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 4), and they found themselves able to speak in different languages.
With Jews from around the world in town for the festival, the disciples’ miraculous multilingualism allowed them to communicate with everyone. Understandably fired up, Peter preached his first great sermon, and 3,000 people were saved that day.
It’s a wild story, and those of you who do celebrate Pentecost Sunday know it’s often observed in colorful ways. As I’ve consulted with friends who are part of liturgical churches, I’ve realized that the rituals themselves have much to teach us.
Aflame in red
Many congregations mark Pentecost Sunday by decorating their churches in red. It’s not hard to understand the visual object lesson. The Spirit can and will bring red hot fire—fire for revival, fire for energy and power, and fire for forging. Sometimes the fire comes in a flash—like it did in Acts 2. Sometimes it comes slow and steady. Either way, it’s potent.
The church fathers used to talk about the way a blacksmith could hold a piece of iron in a fire until it glowed—somehow that cold piece of metal could take on some of the properties of the fire itself. In the fire of the Spirit, our characters can, in the words of Athanasius, “become by grace what God is by nature.” This is a mystery, and words fail when we try to describe it. But I imagine it’s hard to sit in a church aflame with red fabric and miss the implications—or avoid getting a little fired up!
O for a thousand tongues
Some churches mark Pentecost Sunday by asking congregants who speak a foreign language to pray or read Scripture in that language during the service. Through this celebration of multilingualism, these churches rediscover how much the Acts 2 event reveals God’s heart for everyone. After all, that band of believers was empowered with tongues not for a magic show, but so that they could proclaim the gospel to all.
Pentecost is often rightly referenced to encourage global missions. But as I learn more about the story, I also see that those first disciples didn’t need to immediately rush off to the four corners of the earth to reach different tribes and tongues. With so many people from around the world in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks, God brought the nations to the disciples.
I live in a city well populated with first- and second-generation immigrants. I can go to any coffee shop and hear a myriad of languages. I’m also in a multigenerational context, where the paradigms that speak to my age group don’t always reach another. Pentecost Sunday is a chance to remember that the Spirit calls us—and then empowers us—to learn to communicate with people who are different than us.
Now this takes the cake
Delightfully, many churches include balloons in their Pentecost celebrations. Also—and this is the best part—sometimes there is birthday cake. Pentecost Sunday, it turns out, is a day to celebrate both the power of the Spirit and the birthday of the church. It reminds us that the Spirit’s power and the life of the church are always intertwined. The day of the Spirit’s spectacular arrival among the disciples is also the day when 120 ragtag Jesus followers became a church of over 3,000. (That’s over 2,500% growth in one day!)
Recognizing that Pentecost Sunday is the church’s birthday explains why many congregations include church-belonging rituals (like confirmations, first Communions, and baptisms) in their celebrations. When a local congregation commits to annually celebrating the church’s birthday, they are declaring that, as one common church saying goes, “The church is God’s plan A for the world—and there’s no plan B.” Yes, our individual journeys matter, but they are always part of the larger story God is telling through the people who gather in his name.
An invitation to show up
Long before the birth of Jesus, God was working out salvation history in and through groups of human beings, often layering new meaning on repeated observances to unfold the story. Year after year, for example, the Jewish people gathered for the Feast of Weeks—and tradition has it that Moses received the Ten Commandments during that particular festival. So when the disciples gathered in Jerusalem in Acts 2, they weren’t doing anything innovative. They were just observing their own “liturgical calendar”—showing up, being together, remembering what God has done, and making themselves available for what he might do next.
And so, with all of this in mind, I think it’s time to celebrate my first Pentecost Sunday. My husband and I have begun attending an evangelical church that observes many of the days of the liturgical calendar, and I have it on good authority that they won’t let the church’s birthday go by without a party. I’m hoping there will be balloons and cake, and that even our shyest recently immigrated congregants will speak to us in their native tongues.
If you’re looking for me, I’ll be wearing red—and maybe even teaching my pew mates the Trinity Handshake.