Pentecost is one of the main inspirations for my faith. I wish it were more “popular” as a holiday. At Pentecost, the truth, the law, the principles of faith are not just “out there,” in a building or in a book; they are all in me and us and everything is all on the road, moving and changing. On Pentecost faith is real, risen and living, and seems to be exactly what the Bible is talking about.
What made the Pentecost celebration of the Jews of Jesus’ time more than just a straight up harvest festival is that it got connected to the Exodus like this. Fifty days after the Passover and the deliverance from Egypt the people were offered to God as “first fruits;” at Sinai their consecration to the Lord as a nation was completed. So the celebration was also tied to the Ten Commandments and the “giving of the Law.” Jews believe that the law was given after exactly fifty days in the wilderness.
Paul says in Colossians 2:16-17 that the Jewish feasts and celebrations (like Shavuot) were a shadow of the things to come through Jesus Christ. A Christian’s celebration of Pentecost is about the reality that followed the promise of Jesus to his disciples that they would be filled with new life and new purpose. My celebration is about how the prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled.
I suppose it is no surprise that the new covenant gets activated with fire on the mountain of Jerusalem like it is a new Sinai. Jeremiah prophesied that a new covenant (or “testament”) was coming. The old covenant was broken. God was planning a new one. See Jeremiah 31. Pentecost celebrates a great new harvest. The holiday is still a harvest feast. But it is a harvest of people. It celebrates how the law is written on our hearts. It is still a festival about receiving the law. But the laws aren’t written in stone or in a book, they are written on hearts. The stone and book still count, but they are shadows of what the Spirit is making real.
These days that’s a hard holiday to sell. Especially when it falls on Memorial Day weekend! It is a holy day with no special candy or music associated. There are no notable costumes to wear and people rarely put on plays about it. There is no way to make it cute or sentimental. It is very personal and very practical. The basic material is: the disciples have this great experience, and immediately are sent on mission, and almost as immediately are in trouble with the authorities after 3000 people are received into the church. And we are to follow in their way.
CS Lewis had a realistic view of the difficulty of getting people to understand the new covenant. He recognized a law that all humankind shares: everyone seems to agree that fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness are good. All the religions have some kind of version of this law. This law obliges us to do the straight thing regardless of the pain, danger or difficulty involved. It is a hard law — “as hard as nails” But it is a shadow of the love Jesus is revealing. And the “law” of Jesus is even harder. In a poem he wrote:
Love’s as hard as nails,
Love is nails:
Blunt, thick, hammered through
The medial nerves of One
Who, having made us, knew
The thing He had done,
Seeing (what all that is)
Our cross, and His.
In Lewis’s first Chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the lion Aslan predicts this hardness of God’s love by promising to save Edmund from the results of treachery. He says: “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” When Aslan and the wicked White Witch discuss her claim on Edmund’s life, she refers to the law of that world as the Deep Magic. Aslan would never consider going against the Deep Magic; instead, he gives himself to die in Edmund’s place, and the next morning comes back to life. Aslan explains to Susan that though the Witch knows the Deep Magic, there is a far deeper magic that she does not know. This deeper magic says that when a willing victim is killed in place of a traitor, death itself begins working backwards. The deepest magic works toward life and goodness.
Pentecost is about the deepest magic working toward life and goodness. We dare not get stuck practicing the “deep magic” that any person can know. As we see, Jesus says, “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” As we immediately see from the history in Acts, it is harder than one might think to be alive with the Spirit in a dying world:
- to be the presence of the future,
- to have one’s own love that is hard as nails,
- to be personally responsible for carrying life and not just let the priest or church take care of it,
- to have a living faith and not just live a legacy of being a Christian as part of your culture or family.
Most religion is just natural law — love the baby in the manger, justify yourself as not guilty by doing what others think is right. I think the world can sell all sorts of religion based on the “deep magic” that everyone already has an inkling of and that cultures preserve in their laws. But that law is not being the baby, or receiving forgiveness, or speaking out love and forgiveness. It is not receiving the power to work the deepest magic like Jesus.
I like Pentecost because I want to follow Jesus. I don’t want to profess to follow Jesus unless I am working with more than the “deep magic.” I need the law written on my heart. Being a good person is not enough. I need to be forgiven, to be written on. I need God to write my itinerary and determine my value. I need to harvest. Attending holy day meetings is not enough. I need to praise God in public like those enthused disciples. I need to form community and include people in it like the first church. I need to come up against the “powers that be” equipped with the truth about Jesus and little more. That’s what happened at Pentecost and happens still.