So...what do we make of Pentecost?
"Happy Birthday, Christian Church"?
For those of us possessed of at least a smidgen of "the theology of suspicion," this makes for something of a dubious annual celebration. There's the whole history of organized stupidity and malice within the Church: the ignorant mob that destroyed the library at Alexandria...successive generations of censors and heretic hunters and inquisitors, leaving bloody footprints in their wake...systematic oppression of women, of Jews, of gay men and women, of indigenous peoples and anyone who had the misfortune to be of the wrong ethnicity or religion or doctrinal permutation of Christianity in a particular time and place. And then there are the nutters, benign and deadly alike: everyone from the followers of William Miller, who sat naked on a hilltop waiting for the imminent Second Coming, according to Miller's mathematical calculations -- not just once, but over and over again, as he kept recalibrating the due date -- to the murderous likes of Jim Jones and David Koresh. All Christians who thought of themselves as being guided by God's Spirit. In our Gospel lesson Jesus even mentions people who harm his followers in the belief that in doing so they're serving God.
Yay. Happy birthday to us.
So if this isn't the most useful way for at least some of us to frame the festival of Pentecost, then what are some alternatives?
I thought of this over the weekend. One image that kept coming back to me was that of firstfruits. Because that's what Pentecost was originally all about, in Jewish ritual life. Perhaps it's more instructive for some of us to use this holiday, and this season, to celebrate the positive transformative power of the Holy Spirit in human lives -- firstfruits like love; joy; peace; patience; gentleness; goodness; faith; meekness (i.e., disinvestment in one's own rank or prerogatives); self-control.
And there's another dynamic to Pentecost, one many of us heard in our first lesson on Sunday: the widening circle of God's self-revelation, like a pebble thrown in the water. Who could have imagined that the warrior god imaged by a small, scruffy band of henotheistic Semitic nomads would, over the centuries, be transformed into the God we meet in Jesus, and who is worshipped literally around the planet? "Who knew?..."
As a well-known hymn puts it, there's a wideness in God's mercy...a wideness that spans time, place and the vistas of the human psyche. That's the movement of the Spirit that I think I want to acknowledge, with awe and gratitude, this Pentecost season.
Lovely (but copywrited) Pentecost art by Christiane Cappone here