Pentecost, a Christian feast commemorating the birth of the church and the descent of the Holy Spirit, as well as the gift of glossalia, or speaking in tongues, occurs 50 days after Easter. I like the little orange flames sitting over the heads of the apostles in this painting by Duccio!
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)
The symbolic point of this "babble" was not chaos, but that even though everyone was suddenly speaking in a language incomprehensible to themselves, they could "hear" what was being said and understand it. In my former church, this used to be dramatized by having the gospel for the day (below) read aloud all at once by different people in many languages, which went on for several minutes, and then at the end the English version emerged out of the babble of incomprehensible words.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs-we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?"
Theologically, I think Pentecost is supposed to be a time of marveling at the greatest gift that Love (what I'd prefer to call the Holy Spirit) can offer: the coming-together of all the human tribes into mutual understanding and common awe, but I've never heard that expressed in a sermon.
When I was young, the prayer book didn't call it Pentecost, but Whitsunday (Whitsuntide) which is the British name for the pagan midsummer feast the Christian festival merged with.
In somer at Whitsuntide,
Whan knightes most on horsebacke ride,
A cours let they make on a daye,
Steedes and palfrays for to assaye,
Whiche horse that best may ren.(Chambers)
Pentecost always had a resonance for me, because I was such a nut on Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I liked the word itself, and the fact that Pentecost was Arthur's favorite festival, when he held a jousting tournament and big feast, and expected all his knights to gather around the round Table to tell stories, and some great marvel usually occurred. I think it was on Pentecost when the knights, in a communal fervor, departed on the quest for the Holy Grail. Their vow tore at Arthur's heart because he foresaw that they would scatter and die, following out their own interpretations of what the Quest meant and blinded by their own lusts and desires. He knew it would lead to the downfall of everything he had tried to accomplish in his Kingdom.
"So King Arthur had ever a custome, that at the high feast of Pentecost especially, afore al other high feasts in the yeare, he would not goe that day to meat until he had heard or seene some great adventure or mervaile. And for that custom all manner of strange adventures came before King Arthur at that feast afore all other feasts." (Malory, Morte d'Arthur)
I was probably one of a minuscule handful of people in the blogosphere actually observing Pentecost yesterday, and wondering what it might mean in a modern context. We sang a big mass for choir and organ by the French composer Louis Vierne, and at the offertory one of the Sunday School teachers swept down the center aisle with a basket full of construction paper "flames" made by the kids, on which were pasted little plastic butterflies (one hopes they had fire-resistant wings.)
In the afternoon we went to a modern joust: a soccer match between the local Montreal team and Fiorentina. The Italian community turned out in large numbers; Montreal fans cheered lustily for both sides; we got a little sunburned but it was a lot of fun - our first live, upper-level soccer match, which ended in a 1-1 tie.
Sitting in the shade during the half, I especially liked this grandfather, explaining the fine points of the game to his grandson.
Like the city itself, the game and the presence of an A-level team brought out soccer fans from every country; languages were flying all around us as I stood on the upper level of the stadium, watching the crowds leave and the Olympic Stadium in the background.
Games, music: these are the common languages we recognize today. Few people would identify the communal lifting of hearts, and sense of lack of separation, at a rock concert or football game as the "Holy Spirit;" that's a term now reserved for the ecstasy of pentecostal (yes) religion and used almost with embarrassment by more reserved Christians, but it describes a phenomenon that's fundamental to human social behavior and for which, I think, we hunger.
The profound disconnect between the rich myths and literature from all cultures, and our contemporary sense of alienation, despair, anxiety, and atomization -- which we could call "lack of meaning" -- makes me very sad. These stories that form the basis of myth and scripture have developed over the millenia in order to help us see and interpret our own historical patterns, the failings of flawed kings and the gifts of true leaders, as well as our personal longings, fears, hopes, and wonder. Without them, each individual, like Arthur's knights going off in a hundred individual directions, is forced to begin again and again to try to piece together meaning from the babble of a chaotic contemporary world, or seek communal or private highs from experiences that largely exist now without their historical psychological, emotional, and spiritual context because the traditional repositories of wisdom -- whether they're religious institutions, classical literary educations, or even art forms -- have become inaccessible, discredited, or impoverished by the inability of teachers to interpret them for a modern technological age. Meanwhile, fundamentalisms -- and governments based on them -- clash in conflicts of ever-more-epic proportion. All one can hope is that new forms and new stories are arising that will eventually become a counter to the despair and destructiveness so prevalent in our modern world, rather than mere opiates proffered by the media and continually washed into our subconscious minds.