It continues to be rainy and cold here at this old house, the wettest May in 20 years with nearly four more inches of rain than the average rainfall for the month. When the sun finally decides to return, we will be so green and lush, our fire danger will sky rocket.
Speaking of fire, it is the Vigil of Pentecost as I write. A vigil (from the Latin vigilia) means wakefulness and is traditionally a period of purposeful sleeplessness, an occasion for devotional watching, or an observance. Eve has also come to mean “the night before” as in Christmas Eve or the eve of war. The idea is that we are watching, waiting expectantly for something to happen. During the Vigil of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter, we remember, re-participate in, the watching the disciples did in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 2. Ten days after Jesus ascended bodily into heaven, they were all together praying, waiting, and the Holy Spirit of God was poured out on them in powerful ways. Foreign languages were spoken and understood, tongues of fire appeared over their heads, the sound of a rushing wind filled the house they were in. They poured out into the busy streets of Jerusalem where the Jewish world had gathered to celebrate God’s giving of the Law on Mount Sinai and shared the Good News of the fulfillment of that Law in Jesus Christ.
I have a feeling there aren’t many communities waiting expectantly for that kind of outpouring today. I think we have all resigned ourselves to “business as usual.” If we are honest, an encounter with the Holy God of that magnitude scares us to death. While many may complain that church is boring, we are OK with that comfortable predictability. Annie Dillard’s idea* that ushers should pass out crash helmets during worship makes us nervous. What would we do if the Holy Spirit really poured down on our gatherings tonight and tomorrow in the way she did 2000 years ago? [Note: in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke on earth, the noun for the Holy Spirit is a feminine one.]
Maybe that is why the Feast of the Pentecost has taken such a back seat in terms of Christian festivals. It is a non-event holiday. We get all warm and fuzzy about Christmas and love the Easter victory story, though Lent can make us uneasy as well, but Pentecost? With what do the stores offer us to celebrate that?!
I would like to throw out a challenge: keep a vigil for the Holy Spirit. Pray for the Holy Spirit to come in new ways in your life, your family, your faith community. Reflect on Acts 2. While that is not a magic formula, it is a powerful story of what happened when one small group of people really believed God would come through. They didn’t know how or when but they knew God’s promises were sure. They had been told to wait and waiting expectantly they were when God showed up in amazing ways. Maybe if a lot of us did that, our Presidential campaign would be different. Solutions to social ills in our community might find some lasting solutions. Peace could transform our families, neighborhoods, nations.
Let us commit to being Vigil people, vigilant people, people on the eve of God-at-work-in-new-ways. This does not mean “charismatic” in the way it has been ascribed, often in unfortunate ways, to some groups of Christians in the last 100 years or so. Rather, let us live in the bold power of God in all we do. Let us live creatively with courage and joy. Let us be people through whom a tired world can sense new winds blowing through. Let us move to the frontiers of the faith so that we might help a hurting world find its way home. Come, Holy Spirit, come.
* The full quote is as follows: “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”
—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.