Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Some Pentecost traditions
by Father Jan Larson
(From the April 18, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)
The Feast of Pentecost will bring to a close the 50 days of our Easter season. The Easter season has really been a part of the liturgical year longer than has the season of Lent. In fact, in the early Church the entire Easter season was called Pentecost, originally a Greek word that means 50. In the earliest decades of Church history, Pentecost Sunday celebrated both the Ascension of Jesus into heaven and the gift of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Thus the church historian Eusebius reports that the emperor Constantine died on Pentecost Sunday in the year 337, and that this day, which sealed the seven weeks of Easter, was also the day Christ ascended into heaven, and when the Holy Spirit came upon us. Undoubtedly Pentecost borrowed some elements from the Jewish Pentecost, sometimes called the Feast of Weeks. This was a period of seven weeks that followed the celebration of the Passover. Originally a harvest festival, this Jewish Pentecost later came to commemorate the giving of the law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.
Some parishes have begun the tradition of encouraging people to wear red clothing on Pentecost, since red is the liturgical color of the day. This reflects the old custom of decorating homes and churches with colorful flowers on this day. In Poland, for example, and among the Ukrainians, Pentecost is sometimes called the “Green Holiday,” and in Germany the “Flower Feast.” In some Latin countries there is the term Pascha Rosatum, Latin words that mean “Feast of Roses.” And in Italy there is the name Pascua Rossa, meaning “Red Pasch,” inspired by the red vestments worn on Pentecost.
Another traditional and familiar symbol of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit is the dove. This tradition is inspired by the Gospel accounts of Christ’s baptism, telling us that “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” Fire is certainly the other familiar Pentecost symbol, inspired by the report from the Acts of the Apostles that on the day of Pentecost the disciples were gathered together when “suddenly from up in the sky there came a noise like a strong, driving wind which was heard all through the house where they were seated. Tongues as of fire appeared which parted and came to rest on each of them. All were filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Medieval Christians liked to dramatize the Pentecost symbols of the dove and flames of fire. Historical accounts tell us, for example, that in France, when the priest intoned the words “Come, Holy Ghost,” trumpets would blow, signifying the violent wind of which the Scriptures speak. In other countries choirboys would hiss, hum, make odd noises with wind instruments, and rattle their benches. Then from a hole in the wall above, called “The Holy Ghost Hole,” a great swinging disk with a beautiful image of a dove would descend, and remain suspended above the middle of the church. From the same opening in the wall would follow a shower of flowers, representing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and water symbolizing baptism. In the 13th century, French cathedrals would release white pigeons inside the buildings, and drop roses from the Holy Ghost Hole. Some towns in central Europe even dropped pieces of burning straw, representing the flaming tongues of Pentecost. This custom eventually found disfavor, as more and more churches and worshipers caught fire, spiritually and literally.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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