Sunday is Pentecost, the most important day in the Christian calendar after Easter and Christmas.
Unlike those two well-known holidays, Pentecost -- commemorating the arrival of the Holy Spirit -- is not widely observed, even by many Christians.
“How do you wish anybody a happy Pentecost?” asked the Rev. Eddie Gibbs, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary and an Episcopal priest in Pasadena. “They have Christmas cards galore, Easter cards to some extent. But Pentecost cards?”
Still, for hundreds of millions of believers around the world, Pentecost will be celebrated with praise and worship and an anticipation of the Holy Spirit to fall afresh on them. The Holy Spirit is central to the concept of a “triune God,” the Christian doctrine of one God in three persons -- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is one of the profound mysteries of Christianity.
The term “Holy Spirit” comes from the Greek word paraclete, meaning “one who is called alongside,” according to Gibbs. Other synonyms include “advocate,” “comforter” and “encourager.” Christian theology teaches that it was through the Holy Spirit that the apostles were able to preach to all peoples and establish the church.
At Grace Lutheran Church in Ridgecrest in the Mojave Desert, parishioners will wear red -- the liturgical color for Pentecost -- to recall the tongues of flame in which the Holy Spirit is said to have descended on the first Pentecost.
And for 24 hours, around the world, beginning at 5 p.m. today through 5 p.m. Sunday, more than 250 million Christians from San Jose to Hong Kong and London to Cape Town will be participating in the Global Day of Prayer, a worldwide celebration centered on Pentecost Sunday.
“It’s a time to receive a fresh anointing from God,” said Elaine Gee, who has been preparing for Pentecost all week. “Pentecost is where God is making a date with me to experience the outpouring of his Spirit in new ways.”
Gee, who with her husband ministers to the sick in San Francisco Bay Area hospitals, joined more than 1,000 people last week for a 2 1/2 -hour pre-Pentecost service at the Jubilee Christian Center in San Jose.
Observed 50 days after Easter, Pentecost, which means “50th day” in Greek, is viewed as the birthday of the Christian church. The New Testament account in Acts describes how the Holy Spirit manifested itself while the apostles gathered for the ancient Jewish festival called the Feast of Weeks:
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts continues the story, describing how a crowd gathered and how people marveled that all of them could hear their own language. But some in the crowd made fun of the apostles and said they were drunk.
Seizing the moment, Peter told the crowd:
Listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning. No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions; your old men will dream dreams.’
After Peter preached about Jesus’ death and resurrection, about 3,000 converts were baptized that day. It became a tradition to baptize converts on Pentecost, and the day is still sometimes known as Whitsunday or White Sunday because of the converts’ white garments.
To understand Christianity, scholars say, one must understand Pentecost because it provided the connection between God and humankind after the ascension of Jesus Christ.
Christian authors Norman Shawchuck and Rueben P. Job describe the connection in “A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God": “God in Christ became incarnate in ordinary disciples. The faithful continue to receive this gift of God-dwelling-within to provide direction, courage, comfort, hope, companionship and peace.”
The significance of the Holy Spirit in Christian theology has taken on added importance with the phenomenal spread of Pentecostalism, the fastest-growing branch of Christianity. Feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit is a principal tenet of Pentecostalism.
“As a result, it may be ironic, but many Pentecostal churches make no special feature of Pentecost as a special Sunday. They will insist that Pentecost permeates the whole church during the entire year,” said the Rev. Cecil M. Robeck Jr., a professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller and an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God.
Robeck said Pentecost plays a very important role in countries around the world where Christianity has a long history.
In some countries, it’s a national holiday.
So why isn’t Pentecost as widely celebrated outside Pentecostal circles?
Robeck believes the tendency to keep the issues of church and state separate from one another in the United States has prevented Pentecost from receiving as much publicity in the public eye as it has in other parts of the world.
Gibbs adds that many Protestant churches do not observe the Christian calendar.
“Segments of Protestantism, particularly traditional Protestantism, are very nervous about rushing, mighty winds and flames of fire. Because fire and wind make for unstoppable combination.”
The reluctance to adhere to the calendar goes back to the Protestant Reformation, when creeds and liturgical requirements were believed to be oppressive, Robeck said.
Sister Thomas Bernard MacConnell, a veteran teacher, added that it’s easier for human beings to relate to the stories of Christmas and Easter than to Pentecost.
“Both Christmas and Easter ... involve a person or persons,” she said. But Pentecost is about the Holy Spirit, which is not a person “in the same human sense” as Jesus.
The Holy Spirit is a “harder concept for people just because of our humanity,” she said.
MacConnell, founder of the Spirituality Center on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, says she is grateful for Pentecost.
“Without Pentecost, I might not be a Christian,” she said.
Pentecost propelled the message of Jesus to the outside world, she said. It’s when Christians “really broke loose from a rather parochial kind of Jerusalem-centered, fearful, cautious stance.”
Pentecost emboldened ordinary people to go out and take risks and give their lives for their faith, she said.