Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Vigil of Pentecost

The liturgical Easter season has run its course once again, and today we prepare for the celebration of the feast of Pentecost. Pentecost completes Easter. The events of the Resurrection and Ascension during the past 50 days occurred, in God's providence, so that the Holy Spirit might become our "portion and cup", our "goodly heritage", as Psalm 16:5-6 so beautifully puts it. Fr. Karl Rahner expresses it another way in this striking statement: "[The Holy Spirit] is ours to such an extent that, strictly speaking, we can no longer say what man is if we omit the fact that God[self] is man's possession. God is our God: that is the glad tidings of Pentecost."
(The Eternal Year, Helicon, 1964, p. 106)

In most parishes, the liturgy is accompanied by special joyous music and, in many places, by the reading of the Gospel passage in several languages by parish members. The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday, the feast's official name according to the Book of Common Prayer, also traditionally merits the (unofficial) wearing of specially-colored clothing, probably in imitation of this feast's liturgical color, red. My good friend and colleague, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church, Lakeport, CA, has a splendid explanation of the background for this in the latest parish newsletter. It's too good not to pass on to you.

" Tomorrow is Pentecost! It is the day each year when not only the priest and deacon, but all of you are encouraged to wear RED. This also includes the gentlemen of the parish, you must have a red shirt or at least a tie in your wardrobe. So let's show our colors!
'Why red? Didn't this day used to be called Whitsunday in the old Prayer Book?'  'Why, yes Virginia, it did!' 'Well, why did they change it -- just to make me feel old and confuse me?'  'No, but of all the divine mysteries, this is one that I can unravel for you.'
The color red is is a powerful symbol of love, Divine Love, which was shed abroad upon the Church by the descent of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost. Red is also a vivid sign of tongues of fire, the form that Love took in its lighting on the heads of the Mary and the disciples on that morning. Red also stands for the blood, their own blood, that the disciples were bound to shed, if necessary, in proclaiming the Good News and living the teachings of Jesus. 
The use of red vestments and altar adornments only goes back to the late Middle Ages, but has been in constant use ever since. The older English Church tradition called for the use of the "Best Vestments" for this day, no matter what color that may be.
As far as I know, the use of the name Whitsunday, and the season Whitsuntide, is uniquely English and refers to the white garments that the neophytes, or newly baptized, wore on this day and the week following their baptism on Whitsun Eve. As we remember from the celebration of the Vigil of Easter, the public administration of Baptism was regularly done at that time, but since England did not share a mild Mediterranian climate, the formal celebration of Baptism was deferred until late Spring or early Summer so as not to lose too many new converts in an era when Baptism still involved a copious amount of extremely cold water!
With the advent of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the title of the day was styled The Day of Pentecost: Whitsunday; and the Sundays following were numbered after Pentecost, as the Roman Church used to do, instead of after Trinity, as the English Church always did. But in the meantime the Romans changed their numbering of those Sundays to "In Ordinary Time". Now if all of this makes sense to you, I recommend that you listen to an old recording of Anna Russell's explanation of Wagner's Ring Cycle!"

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