Now Gently Light
Religions succeed best when they get the right balance between
change and continuity. Sacred sites - churches, memorials and the like -
offer a good example of this. They represent continuity, and are used
and re-used by successive religious groups, each with its own new angle
on the worship of God, but each also wishing to draw on the
millennia-long associations of the holy place. The same is true of holy
times and seasons.
The settled inhabitants of Palestine before the rise of the Jewish
religion observed a religious calendar based on the farming year. Their
three great celebrations were all harvest festivals. They began with the
barley harvest in the April. Then came the completion of the wheat
harvest in late May or early June. And they finished off with harvesting
the vines and olives in September.
By contrast, the religious traditions of the wandering Jews focused
on the great historical events that took place under the leadership of
Moses. First came the exodus from Egypt, then the giving of the Ten
Commandments on Mount Sinai, and last the forty years of wandering in
When the Jews settled in the holy land and themselves became farmers,
they adopted the local agricultural festivals. That gave them a desired
continuity. But each of the festivals was now associated with one of
their own key historical events from the nomadic era.
The barley harvest became the Feast of Passover, when the exodus was
celebrated. The wheat harvest, fifty days later (hence its Greek name
Pentecost), marked the giving of the Ten Commandments and the whole
And the harvest of the grapes and olives was renamed Tabernacles, a
time when the people lived for a week in makeshift shelters to remind
themselves of the years in the wilderness when they had no houses and no
fields, when they were totally dependent upon God�s bounty and goodness.
Then a thousand or so years later came the Christian Church. It did a
similar makeover, at least in the case of the first two festivals.
Passover became the time of the year at which Jesus died and rose again.
So the Spring Festival became the annual commemoration of those events -
our Passiontide and Easter. This was an identification helped on its way
by a fortuitous similarity between the words Passover and Passion, a pun
that works in Greek and Latin as well as in English.
Pentecost was taken over by Christians as the celebration of the
giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. The connection
between Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit goes back at least to
Luke, who gives his vivid account of the event in the Acts of the
Apostles. But his is a lone voice among New Testament writers. John's
Gospel times the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the
evening of Easter Day, and none of the other evangelists or epistle
writers mentions a specific time at all. Nonetheless, it is an inspired
linking of the old and the new.
First of all, it gave the early Christians something of their own to
celebrate in the early days when their Jewish neighbours were rejoicing
over the giving of the law. It was an excellent example of continuity
and change in the religious calendar. But second - and more important -
it underlined a theological parallel between the pairing of Passover and
Pentecost in the Jewish scheme, and of Easter and Pentecost in the
For the Jews, the exodus from Egypt meant freedom from slavery to the
Egyptians. But that freedom was quickly abused - until the giving of the
Ten Commandments, which were meant to teach them how to use their
freedom rightly. In the same way, Christians believe that the death and
resurrection of Jesus brought us freedom from slavery to sin and death,
but that we need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to use that freedom to
live godly lives.
Luke underlines this link by describing the descent of the Holy
Spirit on the day of Pentecost in terms of the same wind and fire that
accompanied the giving of the Jewish Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. John
Keble�s great Whitsuntide hymn "When God of old came down from heaven"
is today not often sung, otherwise we might be more familiar with the
verse which puts the matter very precisely:
The fires that rushed on Sinai down
In sudden torrents dread,
Now gently light, a glorious crown,
On every sainted head.
Whether the apostles actually experienced the wind and fire as
recorded in Acts, or whether this is just Luke�s dramatic way of putting
over the Christian understanding of the matter, the message contained in
the story is beyond dispute. For the Jews, Pentecost is the celebration
of the giving of the Law to guide God�s people. And for Christians it is
the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit to guide God�s people.
So it is within the "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" as Paul of Tarsus
calls the Christian Church, that we should look for God�s guidance.
This does not just mean in the Bible, or in the teaching of the
bishops and clergy, but in the Spirit-filled fellowship of the whole
congregation. It is to each other, individually and corporately, that we
should be able to turn and confidently expect to hear the Spirit�s
But this will not happen by magic. It will happen only when a truly
loving and faithful Christian community is built up.
Let it be our prayer that the Holy Spirit may so build up our
fellowship and love so that we may - as a matter of course - turn to
each other for advice, encouragement and guidance as we strive to live
out our Christian calling in our daily lives.