Pentecost is upon us, and each year I am reminded of how hard it is to grasp the idea of the Holy Spirit. I was part of a group years ago that regularly met to discuss things theological. It included Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Conservative Jews, Reformed Jews and Russian Orthodox. Quite a gaggle of religious types. Oddly enough, no main line Protestants. Don’t know why.
Anyway, the one thing that eluded us was an ability to talk with each another about the Holy Spirit in ways that made sense to each other, which may have something to do with each of us not being able to make much sense to ourselves either. The Russian Orthodox generally solved the problem by waving their hands in the air and proclaiming it to be a holy mystery, thus delivering us from any more anguish about it.
So what about regular Christians and wannabe Christians sitting in the pews on Pentecost Sunday? The only redeeming thing for them is that it won’t be as confusing as Trinity Sunday the week following, perhaps explaining the usual low turnout for Trinity Sunday. For one thing, what does Pentecost mean? Isn’t it one of those freaky symbols wizards and witches use to summon up dark forces? Just how much about Jewish festivals can one inflict on a congregation without running out of time to deal with the Holy Spirit?
Then there is the problem of tongues of fire. Were they real tongues of fire, or just something that looked like tongues of fire? Maybe something like St. Elmos’ Fire? Oops! Don’t want to go down that road or we’ll end up on Sesame Street. What about those languages. They’re not the same thing as glossolalia, right? Which brings up another word to stay away from. And we are still not at the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We’re just dancing around the edges.
In any case, it’s a story about something that happened a very long time ago to a people we do not know living in a strange place under conditions we cannot apprehend. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with us, and, if it means that we are supposed to act like those Pentecostals down the street, well that’s just too weird, and we’re not going to do it. Episcopalians don't do silly things. So there!
How to make the Holy Spirit understood as a tactile, physical presence with real power, and not as some vague metaphorical something or other that the preacher goes on about now and then? That’s the problem. I’m still working on it. We shall see what happens on Sunday.