Monday, May 21, 2012

It's that Time Again

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.


Anonymous said...

In Vergil's Aeneid, a long epic poem modelled on Homer's, but in Latin and for Romans as PR and propaganda for Augustus Caesar and his programs, there is a scene where the son of the hero of the epic, the boy Ascanius or Iulus, the ancestor-to-be of the Julian family that will one day rule Rome, suddenly appears to have a flame of fire hovering over his head, divinely signalling his exalted destiny. This is the equivalent of the halo in ancient art, conventional symbol of divine or semi-divine status, borrowed later by Christian artists for holy persons. In art, Christ is often depicted both with a halo and wearing white garments that radiate light(from the Transfiguration story). Obviously, art is not realistic, or there would be no reason for Judas to come kiss Jesus in the garden--the Temple police could have just stood outside Gethsemane and looked for the only person there wearing radiant white with a halo! Dr B

Anonymous said...

Yes, Trinity Sunday, now coming up, is a confusing holy day to explain in a sermon. The Trinity itself is only mentioned one time in the New Testament, in Matthew 28.19, and is obviously a late addition to early church doctrine. When the Arian controversy was breaking in the Fourth Century, it was one of the main concerns of the Council of Nicaea, convened by the Emperor Constantine in 323 AD (and NOT by the Pope, to his chagrin, who then boycotted it, but sent low ranking priests as observers!) A presbyter named Arius was attacked for teaching that Jesus was divine, but not pre-existent as Christ, and the doctrine of the Trinity was nreally yet formulated. Another Egyptian presbyter, Athanasius, achieved a sort of "immortal" fame (pun!!)by codifying the formula in a creed that is the longest and most boring (and now quietly put into retirement!)of the 3 later adopted creeds of the "catholic" church. The Spanish Church was the most fervent in emphasizing the doctrine and feastday of the Trinity, and Spanish explorers in the New World spread the name Trinidad everywhere some place was discovered the day after Pentecost (and giving the name to girl children among Spanish speakers).Among Protestants,Episcopalians are especially fond of naming churches Trinity, and the one in New York City is the richest one of all. But the doctrine of the Trinity was first openly rejected in North America by an Anglican church in Boston,King's Chapel,whose Anglican rector had left town with the British troops, and the church, left with a Harvard educated lay reader named Freeman, became under his guidance the first Unitarian (i.e. Arian) church in the United States.Dr B