From a historical perspective, Christianity didn’t start with Jesus’ birth, his death, or even his storied ascension to heaven. It started with Pentecost — the day the “Holy Spirit” entered a room holding Jesus’ apostles and entered each of them, an event which — as my minister uncle tells me — “makes the church the church.”
Although Pentecost is chock full of religious significance, it is a holiday not widely celebrated. Sort of the opposite of Hanukkah, which is widely celebrated but not religiously important. My uncle says Pentecost is a bigger deal in liturgical churches, which follow a formal, standardized order of events (like Catholics). “Non-liturgical” refers to churches whose services are unscripted (like Baptists).
Pentecost is Sunday. Here’s the rundown:
AKA: “Birthday of the Church”
Religion Represented: Christianity
Date: 50 days after Easter
Celebrates: The day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, causing them to speak in tongues.
On a Scale of 1 to 10: The importance of Pentecost depends on the person. My uncle, a Presbyterian minister put it like this: “To me personally, as religious observances go, Easter rates a 10, Pentecost a 7 and Christmas a 6. [But] the average member of my church would probably say Easter was a 10, Christmas an 8 and Pentecost a 3.
Stars of the Show: Jesus’ 12 apostles
Back Story: Pentecost, which means “fifty,” refers to a Jewish harvest festival that occurs 50 days after Passover. In Christianity, it refers to an event said to have occurred 50 days after Easter. (What a coincidence!) But let me back up: At his Last Supper, Jesus is said to have instructed his 12 disciples to go out into the world to minister and heal the sick on their own. It was at this point that they became “apostles.” Fifty days after Jesus’ death, as the story goes, the Holy Spirit (part of the Holy Trinitity — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit ) descended onto the apostles, making them speak in foreign tongues. This Pentecostal experience allowed the apostles direct communication with God, which signaled a major shift and laid the foundation for what would become Christianity. You’ll notice that the disciples always are depicted in artwork as regular-looking men while the apostles are depicted with halos around their heads. (Several other apostles came later — namely the famous Paul who is credited with writing much of the New Testament.
Although all the original 12 apostles are important, some get top billing. Here’s why:
• Peter (also called Simon Peter) established the first church in Antioch and is regarded as the founding pope of the Catholic church. Instrumental in the spread of early Christianity, Peter was said to have walked on water, witnessed the “Transfiguration of Jesus” and denied Jesus (for which he repented and was forgiven.) The Gospel of Mark is ascribed to Peter, as Mark was Peter’s disciple and interpreter.
• John also is said to have witness the Transfiguration of Jesus and went on to pen the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and Book of Revelation. He died at age 94, having outlived the other apostles — all of whom, according to legend/history/whatever, were martyred. John is often described as “Jesus’ favorite” and depicted as the disciple sitting to Jesus’ right at the Last Supper.
• Thomas (“Doubting Thomas”) is best known for questioning Jesus’ resurrection when first told of it. According to the Bible, Thomas saw Jesus himself several days later and proclaimed “My Lord and my God,” to which Jesus famously responded: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:28.)
Associated Literary Passages: The Biblal Book of Acts 2:1-47
Celebrations: Pentecost isn’t associated with feasts or elaborate traditions. Generally, it is a holiday marked in liturgical churches. Because the holiday’s liturgical color is red, to symbolize the apostles “tongues of fire” and also the blood of martyrs, sometimes Christians will dress in red or decorate churches with red. Many churches hold baptisms and confirmations on that day, as well.
What’s the Deal with Speaking in Tongues?: “Tongues” is generally believed to be a type of gibberish (although some say it’s God’s language) created when the Holy Spirit enters a person. Many followers of Pentecostalism — a protestant denomination that emphasizes a direct, personal experience with God — still speak in tongues when they are baptized or “born again” into the faith. They believe that, at the moment of this second baptism, the Holy Spirit fills them, which causes them to speak in tongues — just as it did with the apostles some 2,000 years ago.
Fun Fact: Jesus was captured and crucified because one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him (that’s not the fun part). Within days, Judas committed suicide out of shame (also not the fun part). That left only only 11 apostles, so the remaining 11 voted in a replacement: Matthias. Matthias was there during the Pentecost, which means he became holy without ever having been a disciple. (Okay, maybe “fun” was the wrong word.)
Conveying Meaning to Kids: This idea that, under Christian doctrine, God is able to take several “shapes” — the Holy Spirit being one of them — is sort of interesting. In this way, many Christians believe that God lives inside them because they have allowed the Holy Spirit to enter them. Pretty esoteric stuff for very young kids, though. Speaking in tongues, although far more fun/funny, may be no less difficult to grasp. As far as books go: I haven’t yet read The Very First Christians by Paul Maier, but it’s gotten good reviews on Amazon.
Click here for more from the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.
This post first appeared in May 2012