Despite Our Best Efforts, the Holy Spirit Actually Comes
The Holy Spirit had a trick up her sleeve this morning—thankfully. I needed it.
On the Feast of Pentecost I had slipped into my wonted pew for the 8:00 service, the early gathering I prefer precisely for its quiet and lack of crowds, and immediately I had the sense I often have at religious festivals. Namely, that the seismic temblor that created the original event is only distantly remembered in the feast. That is especially, perhaps even ridiculously true of Pentecost.
Falling exactly fifty days after Easter (hence the penta), it marks the coming of the Holy Spirit in wild, tempestuous fashion. A mighty, rushing wind. Fire falling from heaven upon the frightened little heads of the disciples. Unlike Christmas and Easter, two feasts that commemorate expressly private and hidden events witnessed by no one (Easter) or no one of record or standing (Christmas), Pentecost is a big, public splash. The energy tumbles out in the streets and thousands are lit up. Over 3,000 alone are converted on the spot.
And here I am in my little church, pew all to myself. The wind of the organ chest gently piping Duruflé’s “Variations on Veni Creator Spiritus,” the fire of two meager candles on the altar. I could go to a Pentecostal church where wild, tempestuous liturgy shakes the sanctuary. But I don’t.
I turn to page 355 of the Book of Common Prayer.
The celebrant, bedizened in flame red, opens with this prayer: “Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit,” and goes on to ask for that same gift today, now. It always embarrassed me as a priest to pray that prayer, asking for the wind that “blows where it wills” and the flame that falls with all the predictability of lightning, to come now. Right now. The vagaries of the moon, which had set the date of Easter, had, fifty days hence, decreed this date for Pentecost. And without consulting the Spirit, we had set the time of the service for 10 o’clock a.m. We had to be done by 11:03, give or take a few minutes, or else the young families with soccer and baseball games on their Sunday schedules would not come. We had heliumed 500 red balloons the night before. With all humility and deference, Madame HS, if you’re going to make your appearance, it would have to be now.
I was happy to hold that tension for this Pentecost—the tug between the biblical drama that was supposed to be happening once again, and what was actually unfolding: quietly, on schedule, in ancient words pleaded verbatim for centuries. It was enough.
But then, just as I came back from receiving the holy host, and was kneeling at my pew, a young black woman in the very front row stood up and raised her arms in the air, held them there. I had noticed her somewhat during the service. The priest, standing just a few feet away, would point to the place in the Prayer Book, get her to the right page in the hymnal. She seemed to need a little help. And now, here she was, lifting her arms not just a little but dramatically, at least by comparison to the restraint of everything else about this Pentecost.
I thought she might lower her arms and sit down, but she held them aloft for most of communion. I had knelt to pray but couldn’t take my eyes off this improbable statue of exultant praise. After a bit I began to laugh, quietly under my breath. The Holy Spirit had come!