11 May 2008

Happy birthday to the Church

Patrick Comerford

This morning we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost in the Church of Ireland Theological College.

It was a special celebration at the end of the academic year for the students on the NSM (Non-Stipendiary Ministry) course, with some of them preparing for ordination in the coming weeks, and all of them taking the sad opportunity to say goodbye and to offer their thanks to Adrian Empey, who is about to retire as Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College.

In our tutorial on Saturday morning, and at the start of lectures over the weekend, I used the Collect for Pentecost Day in the Book of Common Prayer (2004):

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
By the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truthand to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Quite often we think the gift of the Holy Spirit is something to consider only at ordination or at confirmation, or it’s just left as a gift for Charismatic Evangelicals to talk about. But the gift of the Holy Spirit does not stop being effective the day after confirmation, the day after ordination, or the day after hearing someone speaking in tongues.

The gift of the Holy Spirit marks the beginning, the birthday, of the Church. And this is a gift that does not cease to be effective after Pentecost Day, even if the lectern and pulpit falls change from red to green. The gift of the Holy Spirit remains with the Church – for all times.

Indeed, in the Orthodox Church they speak eloquently of the Church being the realised or lived Pentecost.

We celebrate the Feast of Pentecost 50 days after Easter and on the Sunday that falls 10 days after the Ascension. Pentecost recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles at Pentecost. But it is also the Birthday of the Church, founded through the preaching of the Apostles and the baptism of the thousands who on that day believed in the Gospel of Christ.

This morning, we read the story of Pentecost in the book of The Acts of the Apostles. They were gathered together in an upper room, full of fear and hiding, when suddenly, a sound came from heaven like a rushing wind, filling the entire house. Tongues of fire appeared, one sat on each one of Apostles, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-4).

When the people in Jerusalem heard the sound, they came together and heard the Apostle speaking in their own languages (Acts 2: 5-6). Some even thought the Apostles were drunk (Acts 2: 7-13). But Peter, hearing these remarks, stood up and spoke about the Biblical prophecies about the coming of the Holy Spirit, about Christ, his death and his resurrection (Acts 2: 38-39).

On that day, about 3,000 people were baptised. The newly baptised continued daily to hear the Apostles’ teaching, joining the early Christians for fellowship, the breaking of bread, and for prayer, and the Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2: 42-47).

The icon of the Feast of Pentecost is an icon of bold colours of red and gold signifying that this is a great event. The movement of the icon is from the top to the bottom. At the top of the icon is a semicircle with rays coming from it. The rays are pointing toward the Apostles, and the tongues of fire are seen descending upon each one of them signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The building in the background of the icon represents the upper room where the Disciples of Christ gathered after the Ascension. The Apostles are shown seated in a semicircle which shows the unity of the Church. Included in the group of the Apostles is Saint Paul, who, though not present with the others on the day of Pentecost, became an Apostle of the Church and the greatest missionary. Also included are the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – holding books of the Gospel, while the other Apostles are holding scrolls that represent the teaching authority given to them by Christ.

In the centre of the icon below the Apostles, a royal figure is seen against a dark background. This is a symbolic figure, Cosmos, representing the people of the world living in darkness and sin, and involved in pagan worship. However, the figure carries in his hands a cloth containing scrolls which represent the teaching of the Apostles. The tradition of the Church holds that the Apostles carried the message of the Gospel to all parts of the world.

In the icon of Pentecost we see the fulfilment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, sent down upon the Apostles who will teach the nations and baptise them in the name of the Holy Trinity. Here we see that the Church is brought together and sustained in unity through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit guides the Church in the missionary endeavour throughout the world, and that the Spirit nurtures the Body of Christ, the Church, in truth and love.

In the Orthodox tradition, Pentecost is a great feast celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, preceded the evening before by a Great Vespers service and on the morning of the Feast by the Matins service.

Orthodox prayer of the Holy Spirit

Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life: come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good One.

Hymns of the Feast

Blessed are You, O Christ our God, who made fisherman all-wise, by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and through them, drawing all the world into your net. O Loving One, glory be to You.


When the Most High came down and confounded tongues of men at Babel, He divided the nations. When He dispensed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity, and with one voice we glorify the Most Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

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