Mosaic representing Pentecost in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis
|Observed by||Roman Catholics, Eastern Catholics, Old Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglicans and other Christians|
|Significance||Celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus|
|Celebrations||Religious (church) services, festive meals, processions, baptism, confirmation, ordination, folk customs, dancing, spring & woodland rites, festive clothing|
|Observances||Prayer, vigils, fasting (pre-festival), novenas, retreats, Holy Communion, litany|
|Date||Easter + 49 days|
The Christian feast day of Pentecost is seven weeks after Easter Sunday: that is to say, the fiftieth day after Easter inclusive of Easter Sunday. It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ while they were in Jerusalem celebrating the Feast of Weeks, as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Some Christians believe that this event represents the birth of the Church. The Feast of the Ascension occurs 40 days after Easter, so Pentecost is a moveable feast. In Eastern Christianity, Pentecost can also refer to the entire 50 days between Easter and the feast, and the book containing the liturgical texts for the period is called the Pentecostarion.
The holy day is also called "White Sunday" or "Whitsunday", especially in the United Kingdom where Whit Monday was also a public holiday (now fixed by statute on the last Monday in May). The Monday after Pentecost is a legal holiday in many European nations.
The term Pentecost comes from the Greek Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē) meaning "fiftieth" (50th). It refers to the festival celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, also known as the "Feast of Weeks" and the "Feast of 50 days" in rabbinic tradition.
The Septuagint uses the term Pentēkostē to refer to the "Feast of Pentecost" only twice, in the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit and 2 Maccabees. The Septuagint writers also used the word in two other senses: to signify the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), an event which occurs every 50th year, and in several passages of chronology as an ordinal number. The term has also been used in the literature of Hellenistic Judaism by Philo of Alexandria and Josephus.
In Judaism the Festival of Weeks (Hebrew: שבועות Shavuot) was a harvest festival that was celebrated seven weeks and one day after the first Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Deuteronomy 16:9 or seven weeks and one day after the Sabbath in Leviticus 23:16. The Festival of Weeks was also called the feast of Harvest in Exodus 23:16 and the day of first fruits in Numbers 28:26. In Exodus 34:22 it is called the "firstfruits of the wheat harvest." The date for the "Feast of Weeks" originally came the day after seven full weeks following the first harvest of grain. In Jewish tradition the fiftieth day was known as the Festival of Weeks.
After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD offerings could no longer be brought to the Temple and the festival started to have a different focus, the giving of the law on Sinai. This feast eventually received the name Pentecost from the Koine Greek word Pentekoste meaning fiftieth day. The actual mention of fifty days comes from Leviticus 23:16.
In Christian tradition, Pentecost sees the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first Christians. The biblical narrative of Pentecost is given in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Peter's sermon in Acts 2:14-36 stresses the resurrection and exaltation. In his sermon, Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32 and Psalm 16 to indicate that first Pentecost marks the start of the Messianic Age. About one hundred and twenty followers of Christ (Acts 1:15) were present, including the Twelve Apostles (Matthias was Judas' replacement) (Acts 1:13, 26), Jesus' mother Mary, other female disciples and his brothers (Acts 1:14). While those on whom the Spirit had descended were speaking in many languages, the Apostle Peter stood up with the eleven and proclaimed to the crowd that this event was the fulfillment of the prophecy. In Acts 2:17, it reads: "'And in the last days,' God says, 'I will pour out my spirit upon every sort of flesh, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy and your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams." He also mentions (2:15) that it was the third hour of the day (about 9:00 am). Acts 2:41 then reports: "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls." Critical scholars believe some features of the narrative are theological constructions. Scholars believe that even if the Pentecost narrative is not literally true, it does signify an important event in the history of the early Church which enabled the rapid spread of Christianity. Within a few decades important congregations had been established in all major cities of the Roman Empire.
Location of the first Pentecost
Traditional interpretation holds that the Descent of the Holy Spirit took place in the Upper Room, or Cenacle, while celebrating the day of Pentecost. The Upper Room was mentioned in Luke 22:11-12 where Jesus says:
... say to the owner of the house 'The Teacher asks you, "Where is the guest room, where may I eat the Passover with my disciples?"' He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.
The Upper Room is also mentioned in Acts 1:13-14:
When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All of these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
|East Syriac Rite|
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pentecost is one of the Orthodox Great Feasts and is considered to be the highest ranking Great Feast of the Lord, second in rank only to Easter. The service is celebrated with an All-night Vigil on the eve of the feast day, and the Divine Liturgy on the day of the feast itself. Orthodox churches are often decorated with greenery and flowers on this feast day, and the celebration is intentionally similar to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Mosaic Law.
The feast itself lasts three days. The first day is known as "Trinity Sunday"; the second day is known as "Spirit Monday" (or "Monday of the Holy Spirit"); and the third day, Tuesday, is called the "Third Day of the Trinity." The Afterfeast of Pentecost lasts for one week, during which fasting is not permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday. In the Orthodox Tradition, the liturgical color used at Pentecost is green, and the clergy and faithful carry flowers and green branches in their hands during the services.
A popular tradition arose in both west and east of decorating the church with roses on Pentecost, leading to a popular designation of Pentecost as Latin: Festa Rosalia or "Rose Feast"; in Greek this became ρουσάλια (rousália). This led to Rusalii becoming the Romanian language term for the feast, as well as the Neapolitan popular designation Pasca rusata ("rosey Easter"). In modern times, the term in Greek refers to the eve of Pentecost, not Pentecost itself; or, in the case of Megara in Attica, to the Monday and Tuesday after Pascha, as roses are often used during the whole liturgical season of the Pentecostarion, not just Pentecost. John Chrysostom warned his flock not to allow this custom to replace spiritually adorning themselves with virtue in reception of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit.
An extraordinary service called the "Kneeling Prayer" is observed on the night of Pentecost. This is a Vespers service to which are added three sets of long poetical prayers, the composition of Saint Basil the Great, during which everyone makes a full prostration, touching their foreheads to the floor (prostrations in church having been forbidden from the day of Pascha (Easter) up to this point). Uniquely, these prayers include a petition for all of those in hell, that they may be granted relief and even ultimate release from their confinement, if God deems this possible.
All of the remaining days of the ecclesiastical year, until the preparation for the next Great Lent, are named for the day after Pentecost on which they occur (for example, the 13th Tuesday After Pentecost).
The Second Monday after Pentecost is the beginning of the Apostles' Fast (which continues until the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29). Theologically, Orthodox do not consider Pentecost to be the "birthday" of the Church; they see the Church as having existed before the creation of the world (cf. The Shepherd of Hermas)
The Orthodox icon of the feast depicts the Twelve Apostles seated in a semicircle (sometimes the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) is shown sitting in the center of them). At the top of the icon, the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues of fire, is descending upon them. At the bottom is an allegorical figure, called Kosmos, which symbolizes the world. Although Kosmos is crowned with earthly glory he sits in the darkness caused by the ignorance of God. He is holding a towel on which have been placed 12 scrolls, representing the teaching of the Twelve Apostles.
In the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Pentecost is one of the seven Major "Lord's Feasts". It is celebrated at the time of ninth hour (3:00 pm) on the Sunday of Pentecost by a special three-segment prayer known as the "Office of Genuflection (Kneeling Prayer)". This feast is followed with the "Apostles Fast" which has a fixed end date on the fifth of the Coptic month of Epip [which currently falls on July 12, which is equivalent to June 29, due to the current 13-day Julian-Gregorian calendar offset]. The fifth of Epip is the commemoration of the Martyrdom of St. Peter and Paul.
The liturgical celebrations of Pentecost in Western churches are as rich and varied as those in the East. The main sign of Pentecost in the West is the color red. It symbolizes joy and the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Priests or ministers, and choirs wear red vestments, and in modern times, the custom has extended to the lay people of the congregation wearing red clothing in celebration as well. Red banners are often hung from walls or ceilings to symbolize the blowing of the "mighty wind" and the free movement of the Spirit.
The celebrations may depict symbols of the Holy Spirit, such as the dove or flames, symbols of the church such as Noah's Ark and the Pomegranate, or especially within Protestant churches of Reformed and Evangelical traditions, words rather than images naming for example, the gifts and Fruits of the Spirit. Red flowers at the altar/preaching area, and red flowering plants such as geraniums around the church are also typical decorations for Pentecost masses/services. These symbolize the renewal of life, the coming of the warmth of summer, and the growth of the church at and from the first Pentecost. In the southern hemisphere, for example, in southern Australia, Pentecost comes in the mellow autumntide, after the often great heat of summer, and the red leaves of the poinsettia have often been used to decorate churches then.
These flowers often play an important role in the ancestral rites, and other rites, of the particular congregation. For example, in both Protestant and Catholic churches, the plants brought in to decorate for the holiday may be each "sponsored" by individuals in memory of a particular loved one, or in honor of a living person on a significant occasion, such as their Confirmation day.
In the German speaking lands, in Central Europe, and wherever the people of these nations have wandered, green branches are also traditionally used to decorate churches for Pentecost. Birch is the tree most typically associated with this practice in Europe, but other species are employed in different climates.
The singing of Pentecost hymns is also central to the celebration in the Western tradition. Hymns such as Martin Luther's "Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott" (Come, Holy Spirit, God and Lord), Charles Wesley's "Spirit of Faith Come Down" and "Come Holy Ghost Our Hearts Inspire" or Hildegard von Bingen's "O Holy Spirit Root of Life" are popular. Some traditional hymns of Pentecost make reference not only to themes relating to the Holy Spirit or the church, but to folk customs connected to the holiday as well, such as the decorating with green branches. Other hymns include "Oh that I had a Thousand Voices" ("O daß ich tausend Zungen hätte") by German, Johann Mentzer Verse 2: "Ye forest leaves so green and tender, that dance for joy in summer air…" or "O Day Full of Grace" ("Den signede Dag") by Dane, N. F. S. Grundtvig verse 3: "Yea were every tree endowed with speech and every leaflet singing…".
As Pentecost closes the Easter Season in the Roman Catholic Church, the dismissal with the double alleluia is sung at the end of Mass. The Paschal Candle is removed from the sanctuary at the end of the day. In the Roman Catholic Church, Veni Sancte Spiritus is the sequence hymn for the Day of Pentecost. This has been translated into many languages and is sung in many denominations today. As an invocation of the Holy Spirit, Veni Creator Spiritus is sung during liturgical celebrations on the feast of Pentecost.
Trumpeters or brass ensembles are often specially contracted to accompany singing and provide special music at Pentecost services, recalling the Sound of the mighty wind. While this practice is common among a wide spectrum of Western denominations (Eastern Churches do not employ instrumental accompaniment in their worship) it is particularly typical, and distinctive to the heritage of the Moravian Church.
Another custom is reading the appointed Scripture lessons in multiple foreign languages recounting the speaking in tongues recorded in Acts 2:4–12.
In the Middle Ages, cathedrals and great churches throughout Western Europe were fitted with a peculiar architectural feature known as a Holy Ghost hole: a small circular opening in the roof that symbolized the entrance of the Holy Spirit into the midst of the congregation. At Pentecost, these Holy Ghost holes would be decorated with flowers, and sometimes a dove figure lowered through into the church while the narrative of Pentecost was read. Holy Ghost holes can still be seen today in European churches such as Canterbury Cathedral.
Similarly, a large two dimensional dove figure would be, and in some places still is, cut from wood, painted, and decorated with flowers, to be lowered over the congregation, particularly during the singing of the sequence hymn, or Veni Creator Spiritus. In other places, particularly Sicily and the Italian peninsula, rose petals were and are thrown from the galleries over the congregation, recalling the tongues of fire. In modern times, this practice has been revived, and adapted as well, to include the strewing of origami doves from above or suspending them, sometimes by the hundreds, from the ceiling.
In some cases, red fans, or red handkerchiefs, are distributed to the congregation to be waved during the procession, etc. Other congregations have incorporated the use of red balloons, signifying the "Birthday of the Church". These may be borne by the congregants, decorate the sanctuary, or released all at once.
Fasting, baptisms, and confirmations
For some Protestants, the nine days between Ascension Day, and Pentecost are set aside as a time of fasting and universal prayer in honor of the disciples' time of prayer and unity awaiting the Holy Spirit. Similarly among Roman Catholics, special Pentecost novenas are prayed. The Pentecost Novena is considered the first novena, all other novenas prayed in preparation of various feasts deriving their practice from those original nine days of prayer observed by the disciples of Christ.
While the Eve of Pentecost was traditionally a day of fasting for Catholics, contemporary canon law no longer requires it. Both Catholics and Protestants may hold spiritual retreats, prayer vigils, and litanies in the days leading up to Pentecost. In some cases vigils on the Eve of Pentecost may last all night. Pentecost is also one of the occasions specially appointed for the Lutheran Litany to be sung.
From the early days of Western Christianity, Pentecost became one of the days set aside to celebrate Baptism. In Northern Europe Pentecost was preferred even over Easter for this rite, as the temperatures in late spring might be supposed to be more conducive to outdoor immersion as was then the practice. It is proposed that the term Whit Sunday derives from the custom of the newly baptized wearing white clothing, and from the white vestments worn by the clergy in English liturgical uses. The holiday was also one of the three days each year (along with Christmas and Easter) Roman Catholics were required to confess and receive Holy Communion in order to remain in good ecclesiastical standing.
Holy Communion is likewise often a feature of the Protestant observance of Pentecost as well. It is one of the relatively few Sundays some Reformed denominations may offer the communion meal, and is one of the days of the year specially appointed among Moravians for the celebration of their Love Feasts. Ordinations are celebrated across a wide array of Western denominations at Pentecost, or near to it. In some denominations, for example the Lutheran Church, even if an ordination or consecration of a deaconess is not celebrated on Pentecost, the liturgical color will invariably be red, and the theme of the service will be the Holy Spirit.
Above all, Pentecost is a day for the Confirmation celebrations of youths. Flowers, the wearing of white robes, or white dresses recalling Baptism, rites such as the laying on of hands, and vibrant singing play prominent roles on these joyous occasions, the blossoming of Spring forming an equal analogy with the blossoming of youth.
The typical image of Pentecost in the West is that of the Virgin Mary seated centrally and prominently among the disciples with flames resting on the crowns of their heads. Occasionally, parting clouds suggesting the action of the "mighty wind", rays of light and the Dove are also depicted. Of course, the Western iconographic style is less static and stylized than that of the East, and other very different representations have been produced, and, in some cases, have achieved great fame such as the Pentecosts by Titian, Giotto, and el Greco.
St. Paul already in the 1st century notes the importance of this festival to the early Christian communities. (See: Acts 20:16 & 1 Corinthians 16:8) Since the lifetime of some who may have been eyewitnesses, annual celebrations of the descent of the Holy Spirit have been observed. Before the Second Vatican Council Pentecost Monday as well was a Holy Day of Obligation during which the Catholic Church addressed the newly baptized and confirmed. After the Council, Pentecost Monday is no longer solemnized.
Nevertheless, Pentecost Monday remains an official festival in many Protestant churches, such as the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, and others. In the Byzantine Catholic Rite Pentecost Monday is no longer a Holy Day of Obligation, but rather a simple holiday. In the Extraordinary Form of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, as at Easter, the liturgical rank of Monday and Tuesday of Pentecost week is a Double of the First Class and across many Western denominations, Pentecost is celebrated with an octave culminating on Trinity Sunday. However, in the modern Roman Rite (Ordinary Form), Pentecost ends after Evening Prayer on the feast day itself, with Ordinary Time resuming the next day.
Marking the festival's importance, in several denominations, such as the Lutheran, Episcopal, and United Methodist churches, and formerly in the Roman Catholic Church, all the Sundays from the holiday itself until Advent in late November or December are designated the 2nd, 3rd, Nth, Sunday after Pentecost, etc. Throughout the year, in Roman Catholic piety, Pentecost is the third of the Glorious Mysteries of the Holy Rosary, as well as being one of the Stations of the Resurrection or Via Lucis.
In some Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, where there is less emphasis on the liturgical year, Pentecost may still be one of the greatest celebrations in the year, such as in Germany or Romania. In other cases, Pentecost may be ignored as a holy day in these churches. In many evangelical churches in the United States, the secular holiday, Mother's Day, may be more celebrated than the ancient and biblical feast of Pentecost. Some evangelicals and Pentecostals are observing the liturgical calendar and observe Pentecost as a day to teach the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Across denominational lines Pentecost has been an opportunity for Christians to honor the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and celebrate the birth of the Church in an ecumenical context.
Classical compositions for Pentecost
The Lutheran church of the Baroque observed three days of Pentecost. Some composers wrote sacred cantatas to be performed in the church services of these days. Johann Sebastian Bach composed several cantatas for Pentecost, including Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172, in 1714 and Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68, in 1725. Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel wrote cantatas such as Werdet voll Geistes (Get full of spirit) in 1737. Mozart composed an antiphon Veni Sancte Spiritus in 1768.
Olivier Messiaen composed an organ mass Messe de la Pentecôte in 1949/50. In 1964 Fritz Werner wrote an oratorio for Pentecost Veni, sancte spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit) on the sequence Veni Sancte Spiritus, and Jani Christou wrote Tongues of Fire, a Pentecost oratorio. Richard Hillert wrote a Motet for the Day of Pentecost for choir, vibraphone, and prepared electronic tape in 1969. Violeta Dinescu composed Pfingstoratorium, an oratorio for Pentecost for five soloists, mixed chorus and small orchestra in 1993. Daniel Elder's 21st century piece, "Factus est Repente", for a cappella choir, was premiered in 2013.
Customs and traditions
In Italy it was customary to scatter rose petals from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues; hence in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy Whitsunday is called Pasqua rosatum. The Italian name Pasqua rossa comes from the red colours of the vestments used on Whitsunday.
In the north west of England, church and chapel parades called Whit Walks take place at Whitsun (sometimes on Whit Friday, the Friday after Whitsun). Typically, the parades contain brass bands and choirs; girls attending are dressed in white. Traditionally, Whit Fairs (sometimes called Whitsun Ales) took place. Other customs such as morris dancing and cheese rolling are also associated with Whitsun. "Whitsunday" has been the name of the day in the Church of England. (The Book of Common Prayer only once uses the word "Pentecost" for the festival. Though some think that name derives from white clothes worn by newly baptised in Eastertide, it may well be seen as derived from "wit", hence "wisdom", the reference being to Holy Wisdom (Sancta Sophia, Hagia Sophia), referred to in Proverbs and the Book of Wisdom, with which the Holy Spirit has often been identified.
In Finland there is a saying known virtually by everyone which translates as "if one has no sweetheart until Pentecost, he/she will not have it during the whole summer."
Date and public holiday
The earliest possible date is May 10 (as in 1818 and 2285). The latest possible date is June 13 (as in 1943 and 2038). The day of Pentecost is seven weeks after Easter Sunday: that is to say, the fiftieth day after Easter inclusive of Easter Sunday. Pentecost may also refer to the 50 days from Easter to Pentecost Sunday inclusive of both. Because Easter itself has no fixed date, this makes Pentecost a moveable feast.
While Eastern Christianity treats Pentecost as the last day of Easter in its liturgies, in the Roman liturgy it is usually a separate feast. The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday may also be called Eastertide.
Since Pentecost itself is on a Sunday, it is automatically considered to be a public holiday in countries with large Christian denominations.
Pentecost Monday is a public holiday in many European countries including Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania (since 2008), (most parts of) Switzerland, Ukraine and also in the African nations Senegal, Benin and Togo.
In Sweden it was also a public holiday, but Pentecost Monday (Annandag Pingst) was replaced by Swedish National Day on June 6, by a government decision on December 15, 2004. In Italy and Malta, it is no longer a public holiday. It was a public holiday in Ireland until 1973, when it was replaced by Early Summer Holiday on the first Monday in June. In the United Kingdom the day is known as Whit Monday, and was a bank holiday until 1967 when it was replaced by the Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May. In France, following reactions to the implementation of the Journée de solidarité envers les personnes âgées, Pentecost Monday has been reestablished as a regular (not as a working) holiday on May 3, 2005.
According to legend, King Arthur always gathered all his knights at the round table for a feast and a quest on Pentecost:
- Pfingsten, das liebliche Fest, war gekommen;
- es grünten und blühten Feld und Wald;
- auf Hügeln und Höhn, in Büschen und Hecken
- Übten ein fröhliches Lied die neuermunterten Vögel;
- Jede Wiese sprosste von Blumen in duftenden Gründen,
- Festlich heiter glänzte der Himmel und farbig die Erde.
"Pfingsten, das liebliche Fest", speaks of Pentecost as a time of greening and blooming in fields, woods, hills, mountains, bushes and hedges, of birds singing new songs, meadows sprouting fragrant flowers, and of festive sunshine gleaming from the skies and coloring the earth – iconic lines idealizing the Pentecost holidays in the German-speaking lands.
Alexandre Dumas, père mentions of Pentecost in Twenty Years After (French: Vingt ans après), the sequel to The Three Musketeers. A meal is planned for the holiday, to which La Ramée, second in command of the prison, is invited, and by which contrivance, the Duke is able to escape. He speaks sarcastically of the festival to his jailor, foreshadowing his escape : "Now, what has Pentecost to do with me? Do you fear, say, that the Holy Ghost may come down in the form of fiery tongues and open the gates of my prison?"
William Shakespeare mentions Pentecost in a line from Romeo and Juliet Act 1, Scene V. At the ball at his home, Capulet speaks in refuting an overestimate of the time elapsed since he last danced: "What, man? 'Tis not so much, 'tis not so much! 'Tis since the nuptial of Lucentio, Come Pentecost as quickly as it will, Some five-and-twenty years, and then we mask'd." Note here the allusion to the tradition of mumming, Morris dancing and wedding celebrations at Pentecost.
- The Greek term used for Shavuot in the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 16:10 and Exodus 34:22 is ἑορτὴν ἑβδομάδων (heortēn hebdomdádōn), often translated into English as "Festival of Weeks."
- As part of the phrase ἐπ᾽ αὐτὴν ἔτους πεντηκοστοῦ καὶ ἑκατοστοῦ(ep autēn etous pentēkastou kai hekatostou, "in the hundred and fiftieth year", or some variation of the phrase in combination with other numbers to define a precise number of years, and sometimes months. See: "... in the hundred and fiftieth year..."1 Maccabees 6:20, "In the hundred and one and fiftieth year..."1 Maccabees 7:1, " Also the first month of the hundred fifty and second year..." 1 Maccabees 9:3, with other examples at 1 Maccabees 9:54, and 2 Maccabees 14:4.
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