A defining day in the life of the early church, Pentecost finds its roots in the Jewish tradition, where it is called Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks. Falling fifty days after Passover, Shavuot is a harvest festival and also commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Acts 2, 1-21 tells us it is on this festival day that the followers of Jesus are “all together in one place” when the Spirit appears. It arrives as a rushing wind, filling them, in-spiring them, causing them to draw breath and speak. The scene at Pentecost offers a brilliant display of how in Greek, as in Hebrew, the word for Spirit, wind, and breath is the same: pneuma.
Along with the wind comes fire, a symbol that stirs our collective memory of the God whose transforming presence has so often been marked by flames. Think of Moses and the burning bush, the column of fire that led the people of Israel through the wilderness, the temple fire that consumed the sacrificial offerings. “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire,” Deuteronomy 4:24 tells us. In contemporary culture, we most often experience fire as a contained, controlled, gentle force. Yet the fires of Pentecost are not the tame flames of birthday candles or a cozy winter’s hearth, the fires of Pentecost are a sign of the God who resists our every attempt to domesticate the divine and to control how the holy will work.
For the followers of Jesus, the day of Pentecost becomes an occasion of profound initiation. With the gift of spirit and flame, the community that Jesus had formed is now fired, prepared, propelled into a new stage of its journey. Like a vessel in the furnace of a kiln, the followers of Jesus receive the transformation they need. They are no longer a group of believers but rather a catalyzed community, a body that, enlivened by the Spirit, will endure and continue the work of Christ.
As those followers knew, we can’t always plan our moments of initiation. If we cannot control God, it follows that we cannot control the ways that God beckons or, sometimes, seemingly flings us across a new threshold. We can work to make ourselves available when it happens, but we don’t always get to choose our initiations.
At Pentecost, initiation occurred not only at the individual level (“and a tongue rested on each of them”) but also at the corporate level. The outpouring of the Spirit upon the whole community reminds us that we are not on an individual journey but a shared one. God calls us, compels us, to attend to the Spirit in one another.
The celebration of Pentecost beckons us to keep breathing. It challenges us to keep ourselves open to the Spirit who seeks us. The Spirit that, in the beginning, brooded over the chaos and brought forth creation; the Spirit that drenched the community with fire and breath on the day of Pentecost, this same Spirit desires to dwell within us and among us. Amidst the brokenness and chaos and pain that sometimes come with being in community, the Spirit searches for places to breathe in us, to transform us, to knit us together more deeply and wholly as the body of Christ, and to send us forth into the world.
The words of Jan L. Richardson