Revd Rex A E Hunt
Minister, Hobart City Centre Parish,
Uniting Church in Australia
Accepted for publication in Effective eldership. A resource for Tasmanian elders of the Uniting Church in Australia .
PENTECOST: THE DAY WE SEE RED
Mention Pentecost and most elders see red!
No, no, no. I don't mean they get angry or uptight or anything like that. What I am suggesting is that most people identify Pentecost with a colour - red.
And so it is. But Pentecost is more than just a colour. It is a season rich in symbols, imagination and opportunity. And colour.
The Pentecost story
Pentecost is the 50th day after Easter. In the religion of the Hebrews/Jews it was a harvest feast - a season of reward. Bringing in the crop is all the excuse needed for a celebration.
In Christian tradition Pentecost is also a season of reward, but it goes beyond the harvest festival services of past years and which still seem to remain in most non-rural churches even today. It celebrates the fruits and effects of the spirit rather than the birthday of the church. The birthing of new wisdom, new imagination and, if we link it with confirmation - new commitment.
Gertrud Nelson, attempting to escape the trap of superficial piety, helpfully suggests the mystery of Pentecost is not in the babble of tongues seen so often in charismatic and pentecostal gatherings, but the gift of tongues...
"the ability to hear and speak the word, each as we come to know it, understand it and proclaim it in the uniqueness of our personhood... to interpret the meaning of Christ's mission as it unfolds in our human experience, and through it we discover a common language"
(Nelson 1986: 188).
Pentecost is one of the great feasts of the church year.
The symbols of Pentecost
Symbols are not new to worshipping congregations. Wedding rings. Birthday cakes. Bread. Wine. Candles. Most of us value the symbolic in our lives.
There are several symbols within the Pentecost experience. Water, flame, dove, wind/breath and colour. Most are elements from nature, so when we celebrate inside we miss the natural setting of Pentecost.
So I encourage worship committees and liturgists to begin the celebration outside, or if the weather is not conducive to this - as could be the case in Tasmania - to at least begin the experience outside.
When members of the worshipping congregation arrive let them walk through a waterfall of red (with a touch of white) paper streamers. Maybe even invest in a couple of bamboo torches and have them burning. Both these experiences with invite worshippers to step outside their conventional imagination into a new fresh world of ritual and the poetic.
Once inside, red and white streamers can again be used - especially if worshippers have to ‘walk through’ the streamers. If you have a tradition of using banners in worship now is the time to move away from banners with words to banners without words. On the banners can be placed the symbols of 'flame' and 'dove'. A red candle can be lit. Even a jug of water placed near the font. A 'dove' mobile. And remember the autumn leaves!
Nothing really radical about these suggestions - unless you haven't done it before. But two further things need to be considered: how (i) to experience 'wind/breath' as an important Pentecost symbol and, (ii) to move beyond the season of reward as only harvest festival.
Overlooking the Derwent River we experience wind most days. It can be cold, raw, blowing right through you. It can also be cooling and refreshing.
The spirit is often represented by wind. But a wind which "blows and touches and ripples and churns up what has become complacent and staid" (Nelson 1986: 53). Our Pentecost liturgy needs to suggest this kind of wind. A banner or balloons, yes. But what about a wind sock?
Another way I try to encourage worshippers to experience wind as breath is to invite them to become conscious of their own breathing. The rise and fall of their breath. And then invite them to wonder at the way God transforms us with every breath we take.
Pentecost encourages us to use our creative imagination.
Beyond harvest festival
Because Pentecost falls within Autumn it is easy to loose its unique place in our liturgical life and let it be caught up in something else - such as harvest festival. This is to allow it to be captured as a rural festival. But Autumn is both reward and maturation. It looks like nature's end but it isn't. It is a celebration of gifts, of fruits and of colour. It is a time of transformation.
I tend to think Pentecost and Autumn is also a good time for confirmation.
Church history can show us that confirmation has had, and continues to have, a mixed history. It has been seen as graduation (mixing religious education processes with initiation), initiation (adult baptism), as well as maturation (become adult in the church). The confusion still exists within all churches.
If we continue to feed our imaginations and discussions maybe we will be able to reestablish the link between Easter (initiation) and Pentecost (confirmation). And maybe Pentecost will be the celebration of the fruits of community - life in the spirit of Jesus - rather than of something else.
Life in the spirit of Jesus is ‘different’. It suggests creativity, imagination, enthusiasm, and community - the missing link.
Pentecost is a good time to celebrate life in the spirit of Jesus. But our liturgical experience of Pentecost needs to be broad. Otherwise it will just be the day when the minister wore red.
Frost, B; D. Wensley. (1970). Celebration. Pentecost to All Saints with harvest and remembrance. Norfolk: Great Yarmouth. Galliard Ltd.
McComack, J. (1988). “Pentecost: More than seeing red” in Modern Liturgy 15, 3, 10-11.
Nelson, G. M. (1986). To dance with God. Family ritual and community celebration. NJ: Mahwah. Paulist Press.
Nickerson, B. (1969). Celebrate the sun. A heritage of festivals interpreted through the art of children from many lands. PEN: Philadelphia. J. B. Lippincott Co.
Quinn, F. C. (1991). “Confirmation is not graduation” in Modern Liturgy 18, 7, 10-11.
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