What’s Whitsun about?

Pentecost Rev. Antony W. Ball Whitsun

by Rev. Antony W. Ball

While the day of Pentecost was running its course
they were all together in one place,
when suddenly there came from the sky a noise
like that of a strong driving wind,
which filled the whole house where they were sitting.
And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire,
dispersed among them and resting on each one.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to talk in other tongues,
as the Spirit gave them power of utterance.

Acts ii 1 – 4 (NEB)

As a child who almost never went to Church, and never went to Sunday School, I found Whitsun1 confusing. I knew that Christmas was about Jesus being born, and that Good Friday was about Him dying, and that Easter was about Him coming to life again, but Whitsun…? What was that all about ? It had to be something important because Whit Monday, like Easter Monday, was a Bank Holiday, but was it anything to do with Jesus…? And if so, what…?

If anyone had offered me the above text2 or shown me this picture, that would surely have made things worse rather than better. I could just about have coped with the noise “like that of a strong driving wind”, but the “tongues like flames of fire, dispersed among them and resting on each one” – oh, come on…!

In fact, of course, Luke is trying to describe something which he had not witnessed himself, but which others had told him about, and which was in any case indescribable. There must have been a noise, because the crowd gathered, and individuals must have felt somehow empowered, but if you’re hoping I’ll describe the indescribable better than Luke did, it’s not going to happen.

The Jews were already celebrating Pentecost (their equivalent of our ‘Harvest Festival’) when something happened, heralded by that noise, something that empowered those followers of Jesus to come out from where they’d been in hiding, fearing persecution for the fifty days since Jesus’ resurrection, now both ready and able to preach the Gospel. They were empowered, somehow, and the nearly two thousand years’ witness of the Christian Church bears testimony to whatever it was that empowered them that day.
Of course I can’t describe it better than Luke does, or picture it better than that artist does.

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1 The term ‘Whitsun’ comes from the wearing of white clothes by those who came for baptism at that festival. The word Pentecost derives from the Jewish harvest festival occurring fifty days after Passover and, since Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover and the Holy Spirit came fifty days later, the Church uses the term Pentecost rather than Whitsun.

2 The text is quoted from the N.E.B., which translation had not been published when I was a child, of course – the only version available in most homes in those days would have been the Authorised Version, which referred to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Ghost. I don’t think that would have helped my childish self either!

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