SJF • Pentecost • Tobias S Haller BSGIt is common to refer to the feast of Pentecost as the birthday of the church. This is the day upon which the Spirit blew through the windows of the house where the apostles were gathered, and filled them with that first new breath of life, empowering them to cry out like newborn children having taken their first breath of air. And what they cried were not the inarticulate cries we hear in the maternity theater or the delivery room, but rather the proclamation of the saving gospel in many languages. This is the birthday of the church, for it marks its emergence into the wider world, having received the gift of the Spirit’s breath that Jesus had promised would come upon them once he had ascended into heaven.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
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As with all births, there was a long string of events leading up to this moment, this first breath of a new life, these first words of this precocious newborn who is able to proclaim God’s grace on the very first day of its birth!
It started, as all births do, with conception. You may have heard people say to the children of their own childhood friends something like, “I knew you when you were just a twinkle in your father’s eye!” Well, we can be assured that the church was in God’s eye — and mind — right at the beginning of creation. God’s Spirit was there, hovering over the birthing waters and gently forming the creation, loving it into being. Since the church is made up of human members, it could not come to be until those human beings had come to be. And so it was that this long pregnancy began when God first created humankind, planting the seed of the divine likeness within the human heart.
Ages would pass before the time was right and ripe. There would be preliminaries, including prenatal instructions: which God gave to the expectant parents on another Pentecost some fifteen-hundred years before the one of which we speak today. For it was on the feast of Pentecost that the Lord God bent the heavens and came down in cloud and majesty and awe, and spoke directly to his chosen people, giving them his holy law as a guide and a covenant. It was on this day, in response to this covenant, that they became God’s people.
More time would pass as the Spirit moved within the expectant parent. Sometimes the baby would kick — and a spark of revelation would spring forth from that chosen people, in the person of the prophets who served as the voice that could say, “Oh, I feel it moving!”
And finally came the day when the labor began in earnest. This was a difficult delivery — even the easiest births do not come about without some cost in water and in blood. This was perhaps the longest labor on record, however — 53 days from the breaking of the water and the shedding of the blood until the live birth and the new breath of life.
It was on a Friday early in the spring that the labor began; it was on a little hill outside the city walls. Since the Romans were involved, you might even say it was a Caesarian section! And you may find it odd that I’m using maternal imagery to speak of Christ— for it is of Christ of whom I speak. I do this figuratively of course, for Christ is our mother only to the extent that the church is a child.
But I also do this in part because of the wonderful and inspired vision that a great Saint of the church once had. Her name was Julian, a devoted servant of God, who lived in Norwich, England, in the latter half of the 14th century. When she was about 30 years old she fell gravely ill and was expected to die; she was even given the last rites as she lay in her small room decorated only with the crucifix that hung on the wall opposite her bed. But on the seventh day of her illness, suddenly all of her pain dissolved away. She then experienced fifteen powerful visions of our Lord Jesus Christ in his sufferings as portrayed upon that cross. She recovered from this nearly fatal illness, and spent the rest of her life in seclusion so possessed by the power of the visions she experienced that she meditated on them for 15 years before pen was put to parchment to record them.
The Spirit spoke to her to answer her persistent questions, “What did the Lord mean in showing me these things.” The answer: “Love was his meaning. Who was it who showed these things? Love it was who showed them. Why did he show them? For Love.” Thus she learned that Love is what our Lord intends.
And in one of her visions, Julian learned the nature of this love, in which she saw that Christ is our mother as God is our Father. For she looked through the blood and the water into the wound in Christ’s side as he hung upon the cross. And within that wound she saw, as she later wrote, as it were all of humanity that was to be saved, kept safely there and waiting to beborn into new life. She saw that the wound in Christ’s side was the womb of salvation.
And it was on the Pentecost we celebrate today that this birth finally took place: the church emerged into the world and with its first breath proclaimed the alleluia of God’s saving grace.
We, my sisters and brothers in Christ, are members of that body, Christ’s body, the church: conceived in the mind of God and upon the waters of the earth and in the human hearts God drew from the primal elements; carried through the wilderness by our Grandmother Israel, who noted God’s words that she might pass them to her children; kept safe within the side of Christ where we were nurtured with his body and blood; brought forth by the paradoxical and unaware midwifery of the Romans and the leaders of the people, who thought they were bringing death but instead were inducing the labor of new birth — a new birth that would bind all of them — Gentile and Jew alike — into the new life in Christ, poured forth by the power of the Spirit.
And so it is fitting today that we will give thanks for the birth of a child, and welcome two new members into this ever growing body, the church. Water and Spirit will both be present in this exercise, as will be the blood of Christ we share from the chalice at the altar rail. This is a day to celebrate an old birth and to celebrate a new one. So, my sisters and brothers, in the Name of God, come let us celebrate this feast!