According to church attendance—the most common measurement influencing ministry leaders—there is no doubt that the three most significant days on our annual church calendar are Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day. These three occasions give people reason to purchase a new outfit, to give gifts, to plan special events, to travel hundreds of miles to be with family, and, for many unchurched people, to attend a worship service. Undoubtedly, these are three big occasions of our church life and it’s not inappropriate to spend extra time in preparation and commit extraordinary resources to making them deeply impactful. But are these three days the “Big Three” of the Christian holidays?
Well, two of them are (Christmas and Easter) but the third one (Mother’s Day) overshadows the most overlooked Christian holy day of the year: Pentecost. This is not to say that we ought to downplay Mother’s Day, but rather that we ought to recover the special meaning and significance of Pentecost. Pentecost, along with Christmas and Easter, ought to be our most celebratory times of worship as the Church. Yet Pentecost Sunday (occurring in late May or early June each year) is often overshadowed by preparation for school graduations, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, camp meetings, and vacations. The Spirit certainly didn’t come at a very convenient time for twenty-first century celebrants.
My family has no less than twelve containers of decorations and five trees for Christmas, three or four tubs with adornments for our Easter celebration, one or two shelves of miscellany for Independence Day (to throw in a day that’s not a Christian holiday), and, at last observation, only a small dove and a single candle for Pentecost. The embarrassing fact is that we have more to display in honor of St. Valentine or St. Patrick than we do the Holy Spirit! No wonder theologians have called the Holy Spirit the “elusive” Spirit. The fact of the Spirit’s elusiveness is apparent in my very unscientific conclusion based on holiday decorations.
The idea of an elusive Holy Spirit isn’t new. Paul asked the Ephesian believers shortly after the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, “Have you received the Holy Spirit?” And they answered, “No, we’ve never heard of the Holy Spirit before” (Acts 19:2). Had they missed the Spirit? Had the Spirit overlooked them? Why hadn’t they heard about the Holy Spirit? Is the Spirit playing a game of hide-and-seek?
In my recent reading on the Holy Spirit I came across Matthew Levering’s simple insight that points to the elusiveness of the Holy Spirit. He asks, “Does the name ‘Holy Spirit’ give us any help in understanding the distinctiveness of the third person of the Trinity?” The Father and Son are likewise “holy” and “spirit” in essence (the Son is also flesh), yet the Father and Son have something in their identity as “Father” and “Son” that gives greater definition to the relationship between them. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, seems to lack that straightforward sort of relationship, at least by name. Augustine, recognizing this lack, famously described the Holy Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son. But I think Ephraim Radner is right when he says that this leads to “pneumatic abstraction.” Perhaps Pentecost has eluded us as a special day because of the Spirit Himself is a bit elusive.
As a pastor it is my responsibility to help my congregants remember, appreciate, and celebrate Pentecost. Here are some ways a pastor may do that (ways that all Christians can benefit from considering):
1. Begin preparing for Pentecost during the Easter season.
Pentecost Sunday is always seven Sundays after Easter. Obviously, the Easter season is the season of celebrating the resurrection of Christ, but it is more than that. It is also the season in which Christ prepared the disciples for life after His ascension.
- “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth …” (John 14:16).
- “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
- “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth …” (John 16:13)
- “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ (John 20:22).
- “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:4-5).
These verses remind us that during the Easter season the Christian looks forward in joyful anticipation. Our people should sense our joyful anticipation from our sermons and songs, as well as visually in our church decorations.
2. Adorn your sanctuary with biblical symbols of the Holy Spirit.
A great way to keep our sanctuaries fresh and invigorating is to decorate along the themes of the Christian calendar. If you are unfamiliar with the Christian Year and the special occasions that Christians have honored for centuries, Celebrating the Christian Year by Martha Zimmerman is still a classic worth reading. Here is a list of biblical symbols for the Holy Spirit:
a. A dove (usually white) is symbolic of the presence of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism “like a dove” (Mark 1:10). Christian tradition has associated the baptism of Jesus and the descent of the Spirit upon Him with the release of a dove by Noah in Genesis 8:8-12. The dove in Genesis as well as Jesus’ baptism is a symbol of the redemption and renewal.
b. The most well-known symbol associated with Pentecost is a fire based on Acts 2:3. Fire is frequently used in the Old Testament as a symbol God’s presence (Exodus 3:2; 13:22) and as a symbol of purification (Isaiah 6:6-7; Ps 66:10; Pro. 17:3). There are, of course, dangers to lighting a fire indoors, but there are safe, creative ways to use fire as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
c. The Holy Spirit is also associated with water which symbolizes creation and purification. In the beginning the Spirit moved upon the face of the waters (Gen 1:2). Water was employed in the purity rituals of Leviticus. In the New Testament water baptism is mentioned alongside the baptism of the Spirit (John 3:5; 1 Cor 12:13). A clear round decorative bowl with slightly colored water can symbolize the Spirit’s presence at the creation of the world.
d. The number seven is used in Revelation 1:4 to symbolize the Holy Spirit. Of course, the Menorah commonly used by Jews contains seven holders for candles. The symbol of seven lamps goes back to the furnishings of the Old Testament tabernacle in Exodus 25:37 and is a useful symbol for Christian faith when coupled with other symbols of the Holy Spirit.
e. Wind and breath are symbols of the Holy Spirit especially in John 20:22, Acts 2:2, and in the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. Wind and breath are invisible but not impossible to utilize. We use our breath in singing songs of worship back to the Giver of Life and in the playing of brass and woodwind instruments.
f. Traditionally, red and white colors are displayed on Pentecost. The communion table may be draped in red or white and banners can be hung in celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
An additional word about the use of symbols is appropriate. Since the beginning of organized religion in Genesis it has been human nature to replace the reality of God with images and symbols. This is why God told His people not to make any image of Him, that is, to treat any created thing as the Creator Himself. This does not mean that God is opposed to imagery. God filled the tabernacle with imagery; the prophets and the apostles utilize imagery in worship of God; and the Church has a rich history of images that contribute to a spiritual atmosphere of worship. Many churches who are generally conservative in their use of symbols still display a cross prominently at the front of the sanctuary. Here are some simple principles to keep in mind:
- Symbols used in worship should be drawn from Scripture.
- Symbols must direct our mind to the revealed truth about God.
- Symbols are merely aids in worship and not objects of worship.
- Simplicity is generally best.
3. Anoint the sick with oil.
Anointing oil is another symbol of the Holy Spirit. Some traditions still observe anointing the sick with oil as described in James 5:14. Pentecost Sunday is a good time to integrate anointing of the sick into the worship liturgy. It is best to use unscented oil.
4. Fellowship with the saints.
Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and the first day of a very lengthy season of Pentecost. Since Pentecost takes place at the beginning of summer, it is a great occasion to enjoy the fellowship of the Spirit with the people with whom we worship. The Church is the formation of the Holy Spirit, the visible manifestation of the Body of Christ. A church dinner and fellowship is very appropriate on this occasion. Since summer is often filled with camp meetings and vacations, this may be the last opportunity for several weeks for a church to enjoy one another’s friendship.
5. Celebrate the gifts of the Spirit.
This may be combined with the previous point by encouraging the congregation to express gratitude to one another for the spiritual gifts they bring to your church family. You may decide to give special recognition to someone who has faithfully used their gifts within the local church. I believe this is honoring to the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost is an occasion for Christian celebration. Christ calls us to anticipate it, to embrace it, and to take joy in the gift of the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit may seem elusive at times, there are many ways we can celebrate the birthday of the Church and the Person of the Holy Spirit. It is up to us to make sure the Church does not elude the Holy Spirit.