Tomorrow we celebrate Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, huddled in fear in the upper room.
It’s traditionally known as the birthday of the Church, though it was a Jewish holiday first. The reason all those polyglot crowds were present in Jerusalem in the first place to miraculously hear and understand the Good News was to celebrate the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot–which might, in turn, be thought of as the birthday of Judaism. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Law on Sinai, in thunder, fire, and wind. That wind, that fire, that thunder were present at Pentecost, too.
God knows we could use a birthday party about now. I date myself (and make enemies, but so it goes) by confessing that the most joyful celebration of Pentecost I ever participated in was a Mass ending a Pentecost weekend retreat of the Los Angeles Women’s Ordination Conference in the early 1980s. Relax. It wasn’t the wiccan bacchanalia you’re imagining. The celebrant was a Franciscan priest in good standing, and though the liturgy included some of the theatrical touches everybody pooh poohs these days–banners and streamers, wind chimes, the blowing of bubbles to accompany the recessional–it was quite tame for its time. The electricity in the air, the fire and wind and deeply stirring presence of the Holy Spirit, came from our shared belief that we were hearing the Spirit’s call to the Church to move out of the stifling upper room of males-only ministry. We sang the chorus to Tom Conry’s “Anthem” with the fervor of people afire:
We are called, we are chosen.We are Christ for one another.We are promised to tomorrow,while we are for him today.We are sign, we are wonder.We are sower, we are seed.We are harvest, we are hunger.We are question, we are creed.
We were, of course, wrong. (You can decide for yourself in what ways, though it’s significant that when the celebrant was called on the carpet, as he knew he would be, by the bishop chancellor, the worst we were charged with was “Bubbles?”)
Today, a long way from then, the Church finds itself under siege, locked in a series of nested upper rooms like Chinese boxes and defensive against secularism, assaults on religious freedom, attacks from within from my Vatican II cohort, evidence of abuse and financial mismanagement, and the whole Women Thing we thought we had overcome. It’s pretty grim all around. Not a wind chime or a bubble in sight. The Church seems to be facing this birthday with all the enthusiasm (literally, “God within”) of Eeyore.
“You seem so sad, Eeyore.”“Sad? Why should I be sad? It’s my birthday. The happiest day of the year.”“Your birthday?” said Pooh in great surprise.“Oh! Well, Many happy returns of the day, Eeyore.”“And many happy returns to you, Pooh Bear.”“But it isn’t my birthday.”“No, it’s mine.”“But you said ‘Many happy returns’–”“Well, why not? You don’t always want to be miserable on my birthday, do you?”“Oh, I see,” said Pooh.“It’s bad enough.” said Eeyore, almost breaking down, “being miserable myself, what with no presents and no cake and no candles, and no proper notice taken of me at all, but if everybody else is going to be miserable too . . .”
So my prayer is the Church’s prayer this weekend, in the words of the Golden Sequence. Veni, Sancte Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit!
Illuminate us. Infuse us with courage, but joyful courage. If the doomsayers are right and we are headed for the catacombs, remind us that martyrs have always gone to their deaths singing. And if the doomsayers are wrong–because You have the last word–let our courage to be joyful be the witness that wins hearts.
Intoxicate us, so that the world of folks who dismiss us at first as drunken fools will be charmed at last by Your words spoken through us.
Unify us, as on Pentecost You unified the Apostles and those to whom they were sent by overturning the chaos of Babel.
And for God’s sake and the world’s, get us out of this box, this darkness, this airlessness, this crippling fear, this upper room, this coffin, even if You have to set our heads as well as our hearts on fire to do it.
Pray with me, friends, by singing along with this most moving setting of the Golden Sequence by the Taize community. And if you want to blow a few bubbles while you’re at it, I won’t tell.