Last night, my son and I were chatting about baseball, school, his girlfriend—father and son sort of stuff—before he headed to bed. During our conversation, I spied the remnants of an Easter basket on top of a shelf in the corner of the room by his desk. “Can I have a jelly bean,” I asked. “They’re all gone,” he told me. I love jelly beans. I can do without chocolate bunnies (it still bothers me to bite their heads off) and marshmallow peeps, but jelly beans I love.
That’s it, then. It’s official: the end of the Easter season. Even the black jelly beans are gone. The majesty, the magnificence, the miracle of Easter are now the nearly distant past. The pomp of music and poetry, “Christ the Lord is risen today” and Updike’s jarring “Seven Stanzas at Easter:” “Make no mistake; if he rose at all, it was as His body.” They’ve vanished.
The ripples of resurrection have stilled. So has my spirituality. It’s not yet in tatters, like my son’s Easter basket, but it’s calmer now. The tomb has been empty for a while; there’s less news to tell, no one running to see the grave cloths and walking away, scratching her head, astonished, the way Peter did.
Pretty soon, in fact, the church will settle in for a long summer of what it calls ordinary time. How unpromising.
But not yet. This Sunday, May 19th, we celebrate Pentecost, the middle child of Christian holidays, wedged between Christmas and Easter. Pentecost doesn’t call attention to itself. There’s no tinsel, no pastel colored eggs.
There is, however, a distinctive magic to Pentecost—full-blown ecstasy, an almost illicit experience of God. That first Pentecost, after tongues as of fire rested on everyone and Jesus’ friends and family spoke in other tongues, people gathered around to watch at nine in the morning. What they saw didn’t look like many Sunday morning church services. What they saw looked more like the aftermath of a party. “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine’” (Acts 2:13). They weren’t drunk, of course, but they looked like it.
Wouldn’t that be something, to be so taken up with God that onlookers think we’re drunk with sweet wine? Wouldn’t it be remarkable to ride the edge of ecstasy? “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” Annie Dillard asks. ”Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? … It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”*
Pentecost. Crash helmets. Signal flares—tongues as of fire falling on each of us.
Yet that’s only half the story of Pentecost. When Jesus’ friends and family spoke up, ecstasy became acuity, drunkenness took shape in deliberate truth-telling. “Amazed and astonished,” jaw-dropped onlookers asked, “How is it that … in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s praiseworthy acts” (Acts 2:11). God’s praiseworthy acts is shorthand for God’s eager participation in history. At the heart of Jewish Torah, Moses encouraged the Israelites to “acknowledge God’s praiseworthy acts, God’s mighty hand and God’s outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 11:2). In profound ancient poetry, we discover the words, “Sing to God, sing praises to God; tell of all God’s praiseworthy acts” (Psalm 105:1-2).
The ability of the onlookers to hear God’s praiseworthy acts in the languages of their home towns tells us something about ecstasy: its purpose is to communicate the work of God with complete—even miraculous—clarity.
Utter abandon and utter clarity. What a thrill, to feel God so deeply and to communicate the truth so cogently. That is the magnificence we wouldn’t want to miss this Sunday, an otherwise ordinary day in the uncharted expanse of time between Easter and Christmas.
How do we keep from letting this experience slip through our fingers? How do we get ready for Pentecost? Come back tomorrow, and you’ll find out.
*Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row, 1982)