Saturday, June 03, 2006

Pentecost Tomorrow!

What does Pentecost mean to you?

(Notice that I didn't say, "what does Pentecost mean to you as a Unitarian Universalist?" Know why? Because I'm really, really tired of hearing every theological and religious question posed that way, as though our denominational and congregational affiliation makes us a different species than every other human.)

P.S. Since when does Blogger require a word verification for posting entries?


Blogger Christine Robinson said...

Pentacost Christianity is much more to my taste than Easter Christianity, focusing, as it does, on our own relationship to God and how that manifests in and among us, whereas Easter Christianity is predicated on a doctrine (resurrection) which I have never been able to accept in any but the most blandly general way ("You Can't Kill the Spirit".... which gets us to Pentacost.")

Blogger fausto said...

I think to most UUs it doesn't mean anything whatsoever, and that's regrettable. So first, if you haven't done it in a while, get out your Bible and read Acts 2. Then come back here and we can talk.

I think among many Christians, there's too much emphasis on the "speaking in tongues" element of Pentecost and not enough reflection of what it means that each person present heard the Holy Spirit in his or her own language -- a message that I think would resonate among UUs, and that is consistent with Jewish midrash (more on that below).

I think both most UUs and most Christians are too attuned to Jesus (either to rejecting him in the case of UUs, or affirming his Godhood in the case of Christians) and not sufficiently attuned to the Holy Spirit moving in the world. (Actually, some UUs are quite attuned to it, they just aren't accustome to speaking about it in those terms.) In both traditions, Pentecost is a good occasion to try to correct that.

I think both Christians and Jews are insufficiently aware of the harmony between Jewish and Christian meanings of the holiday. The word "Pentecost" means "fiftieth". In Hebrew it's called "Shavuot", and for Jews it closes the Passover season on the fiftieth day after Nisan 16 (the second day of Passover), when Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. It is also traditionally a celebration of the first fruits of the grain harvest. It was this Jewish celebration that the disciples were attending when the events of Acts 2 unfolded. Even aside from that coincidence, there is tremendous resonance between the Jewish meaning and the Christian meaning of the fiftieth day (give or take) after the Crucifixion, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit and its first fruits. (Jeews celebrated it yesterday and Christians tomorrow, due to divergences in their respective liturgical calendars.)

The Jewish midrash I mentioned concerns Moses receiving the Torah at Sinai, as the Shavuot holiday recalls. In the original Hebrew of the Book of Exodus, it says that the children of Israel “perceived” or “saw” the “thunderings” that were occurring on Mount Sinai as God gave the Torah to Moses. To “see thunderings” is such a strange expression that a whole body of Jewish commentary has arisen to explain the meaning. One midrash holds that when God gave the Torah to Israel at Sinai, all the children of Israel, past, present and future, dead, living, and unborn, blood descendants and converts, were somehow mystically present at the base of the mountain to receive the covenant individually and personally, together with Moses. Another midrash expands on the plural word "thunderings" by stating that God's voice mutated into seven voices, and the seven voices into seventy languages, so that all the nations might hear it; and ultimately every Israelite, past, present and future, heard the words of the Revelation in his or her own way, depending on his or her personal ability to comprehend the Divine message.

I think this offers an excellent guide to understanding the peculiar Christian story in Acts 2, when each stranger from scattered countries all over the world heard the Holy Spirit in his own language according to his own understanding.

Before the Industrial Revolution, as I mentioned over at The Socinian, there also used to be vestigial pagan earth-centered overtones associated with the observance of the day in England and other Germanic peasant societies. These were similar (but apparently unrelated) to the Jewish "first harvest" observances, and offer a rich layer of meaning that regrettably is largely lost today, but ought to appeal especially to UUs interested in authentic revival of lost ways to observe nature reverence and "pagan" spirituality.

So what does Pentecost mean to me? An opportunity for each of us to deepen our awareness of tradition and our personal faith, according to whatever divine voice speaks most clearly to each of us.

Blogger Tricycle Blog said...

I'm a confirmation of Fausto's contention: Pentecost means absolutely nothing whatsoever to me. I didn't even hear about it until I was well into adulthood, it was never once raised at my historically Universalist (and still quite Christianish) home church. This contrasts with the prominent place of Easter and Christmas in our church year.

Following Fausto's prompt, I just read Acts 2 for the first time ever (revised standard version, the Bible I received from the church when I graduated fifth grade UU Sunday School). It's a pretty interesting passage, I can see why it would be exciting to some Christians. For me, the meaning seems to be that when people are truly moved by the spirit their words are relevant to all people--they speak in terms that are meaningful to people of all cultures and backgrounds.

I don't see Pentecost becoming a major interest or issue for UUs. I can't really imagine being interested in discussing it further, though I'd be willing to listen to others at church/online discussing its meaning to them. It kind of reminds of a major Buddhist idea, that when people listen to the speech of a bodhisattva or Buddha they hear them as if they were speaking to them directly in their own language, giving them precisely the teaching they need in whatever their particular situation.


Blogger Ron said...

As PB may know, Pentecost is one of the most important holy days for me. I'd provide a sermon link but it looks like cyber vacuum has cleaned out a sermon I used to have posted on Why I Am A Pentecostal UU (apologies for the sectarianism but that was the focus back when the sermon was delivered). It is a particularly important occasion for church planters. I will reprise the gist soon over at And I could also put together a packet of back issues over the years of the UU Christian Fellowship's Good News issues published during Pentecost focusing on the season and event and send out if anyone would like to receive it. Just drop me an email.


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