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Pentecost is, as the name denotes, the fiftieth day (Greek: pentēkostē) of Easter, the last day of the Great Fifty Days. Although it does, like Ascension Day, commemorate its own major event in the history of salvation (i.e., the coming of the Holy Spirit), it cannot stand alone. Properly speaking, it is not the beginning of a new season of the Church year. Rather, it is the end of a season, the last hurrah, as it were, of the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Descending Dove, stained glassNevertheless, Pentecost (or Whitsunday as it has been known in England) has traditionally been treated as a new feast. In effect, the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church observed an octave of the feast, appointing propers that focused on the work of the Holy Spirit for the weekdays between Pentecost and the following Sunday. (Curiously, though, the week was still described as being part of Eastertide.) This was also reflected in older Anglican practice where The Book of Common Prayer used to provide propers for the Monday and Tuesday in Whitsun Week. Furthermore, the Ember Days which were observed at the end of the week also focused implicitly on the work of the Holy Spirit. Now, however, Ember Days have become a liturgical footnote and most modern Anglican use no longer explicitly connects the week to the feast day that begins it. On the day after Pentecost, ferial (non-festal) time begins. The numbered Sundays after Pentecost do not constitute a season of Pentecost. Rather, Pentecost, the last day of the previous season, is just a convenient marker to begin counting from. Oddly enough, if Pentecost has a season at all, it consists of the nine days that precede it. Both biblically and liturgically, the novena which is properly Ascensiontide is a period of preparation for Pentecost.

Even without all of this confusion about the status of Pentecost, it does at times seem to be on the verge of going the way of the dodo, or at least the way of Ascension Day. It has traditionally been regarded as equal to the two principal feasts of our Lord:  Christmas and Easter Day. It is, along with those feast days, one of the three days each year on which the faithful were expected to receive Communion in order to maintain their status as communicants in good standing in the Church. But it is no longer a day on which one can expect church attendance to spike. Indeed, it is a day which has become much like any other Sunday, distinguished only by the red vestments of the clergy, but with no other customs or traditions to distinguish it.

It was not always so. There are both liturgical and non-liturgical customs that once characterized Whitsunday and some of them are worth reviving in our ongoing effort to restore a truly homely divinity to Anglican practice.


Liturgy is drama. It is not playacting, but it is a dramatic presentation of the Gospel, replete with script, costumes, choreography, and a stage. Every Eucharist is a presentation of the essential drama of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That service enacts his Incarnation at Christmas (and throughout the year). That service enacts his Resurrection presence at Easter (and throughout the year). That service enacts the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (and throughout the year). Whether the ceremonial is simple or elaborate, humble or grand, that service enacts the drama of salvation through the year. Often, the essential drama is enriched with action that calls to mind a particular occasion or theme: the procession to the crèche at Christmas, the imposition of ashes at the beginning of Lent, the Palm Sunday procession, the lighting of the Paschal Candle at Easter, and so forth. Pentecost, too, has had its unique liturgical expressions.

The particular events of Pentecost are described in the Acts of the Apostles: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-4) This is a story full of action and symbol, and one with tremendous potential for dramatic expression.

In some ways, the technology of the middle ages may seem primitive to us--until we stop and think for a moment about the tremendous accomplishments of medieval architects, building massive stone edifices without the benefit of modern machinery. Green Man, Ceiling boss in Canterbury CathedralLiturgists were equally ingenious in their use of these buildings. Visitors to medieval churches will be familiar with the elaborately carved keystones (or "bosses"), such as this Green Man from Canterbury Cathedral, that look down from the center of the stone vaulting of the church ceiling. The observant visitor may also be aware that sometimes, near the east end of the church, there is a large hole where a carved boss would normally be. This is the "Holy Ghost hole" which had a special function on Whitsunday. In the middle ages, a dove descended from this hole as the story of the first Pentecost was read. The dove could be either live or a model lowered by ropes. As it appeared, the sound of the rushing wind was imitated either by the choristers shuffling their feet or by the blast of trumpets. And the show did not end there, for next there would shower down from the Holy Ghost hole, "tongues of fire"--either red rose petals or pieces of burning straw.

The dove derives, not from the story of Pentecost, but from the story of the Baptism of Jesus. Its use in the liturgy of Pentecost makes a visual connection between two important stories about baptism, the Baptism of Jesus and the baptism on the first Christian Pentecost of some three thousand converts to the faith. The baptismal motif is the source of the traditional English name of the feast. On Whitsunday, literally "White Sunday," those who had  been baptized on Easter Day once again put on the white clothing which they had worn for the first time on the day they were baptized, thus ending the feast as they had begun it and reminding the whole congregation of their own baptisms. Traditionally, Whitsunday had a Vigil much like the Great Vigil of Easter. The Whitsun Vigil also celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, gathering into the membership of the Church those children who were born during the Great Fifty Days and those adult catechumens who may not have been ready for baptism at the beginning of Easter.

Modern churches are not likely to have Holy Ghost holes and the facilities for a deus ex machina, but it would be possible to hang a figure of a dove over the nave or over the altar, as in this photograph. (The dove in the photo is actually a hanging pyx (a vessel containing the reserved sacrament) at St. Barnabas' Church, Southfields, London--that is a subject for another time.) During the reading from Acts, the choir or the congregation can shuffle their feet at the appropriate time or perhaps the organist could provide a suitably windy effect--encourage her/him to be creative, but not to drown out the voice of the reader! If there is a way to have something shower down from above, we recommend rose petals rather than burning straw--your insurance company may not approve of the latter. The trick in things like this is to pull it off "decently and in order." Liturgy is drama, but its purpose is to engage and involve the congregation, not to entertain them. Liturgy should be joyful, but it is also serious. If the net effect is going to be that the people respond by giggling, it should not be done. However, one of our parishes did try the feet shuffling last year and it really worked, because they were prepared and took it seriously.Wild Columbine

Doves present many possibilities, in church, in church school, and also at home. In the middle ages, families in some parts of Europe had wooden doves that they suspended from the ceiling in their homes during Whitsuntide. An origami (folded paper) dove would be a relatively easy modern substitute for this custom. Here is a link to a site that shows you how to make origami doves. This would be a good project for children in church school. The doves could be brought into church and blessed before they are taken home. If the children (or some adults) are really ambitious, they could make enough doves to distribute to everyone in the congregation. Or you might have origami doves, rather than rose petals, shower down during the reading of the story of Pentecost. Another dove-related decoration for church or home at Whitsuntide is columbine. This flower got its name from the Latin word for dove, columba, because the flowers were thought to resemble a dove in flight. Columbine is the Whitsun flower and, if it blooms in your area at Pentecost, it would be wonderful to have it in profusion in the church, at home, and in gardens. Another flower that is sometimes in bloom on Whitsunday is the peony. For that reason, the Germans know it as the "Pentecost rose."

Back to the liturgy: clearly Whitsunday is a day for celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. We do not know many parishes that have a Vigil service for Pentecost. Since the feast itself has, for the moment, lost some of its former luster, reviving the Vigil is likely to be a hard sell, though we do hope that the day will come when the Church once again keeps this feast in all its splendor. Nevertheless, whether at a Vigil, as at Easter, or on Sunday morning, this is one of the days when baptisms are particularly appropriate.

Another way of enacting the events of Pentecost in the liturgy is to have the Lesson from Acts or the Gospel of the day read in different languages. In Acts, Luke tells us that visitors who had come to Jerusalem from different lands and spoke a variety of different languages exclaimed "in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." (Acts 2:11) We would suggest that the idea of having various people read the lesson or the Gospel in various languages only makes sense if each language that is read is a living language and there are people in the congregation who understand it. No one speaks Latin today or classical Greek, so it is meaningless to read a story about the life-giving gift of the Holy Spirit in those venerable, but dead, languages. On the other hand, it is quite possible, and even likely, that a congregation in a typical American community will have some people present whose first language is Spanish. We know an urban parish that has had a large Chinese contingent for many years and a Midwestern parish that welcomed Hmong refugees from Laos. Even though these immigrants may now speak English, many of them probably still speak their first language among family and fellow immigrants. It can be a potent sign of the universal appeal of the Gospel to continue to proclaim it on this particular occasion in the various tongues that are still alive in a parish.

On certain major feast days, the Church has a hymn called a "Sequence Hymn," which is sung just before the reading of the Gospel. The name actually comes from the first words which used to announce the reading of the Gospel, "The continuation (sequentia) of the Gospel according to...." The Sequence Hymn appointed for Whitsunday is a particularly fine Latin poem, Veni, Sancte Spiritus, composed in the 12th century, and known as "The Golden Sequence." It is found in various English hymnals in different translations. There are actually two translations (really paraphrases) in The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. However, we particularly like the slightly altered translation found in The Hymnal 1940, which was made by the Tractarian, and later convert to the Roman Catholic Church, Edward Caswall.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
Et emitte caelitus
     Lucis tuae radium:
Veni, pater pauperum;
Veni, dator munerum;
     Veni, lumen cordium.

Consolatur optime,
Dulcis hospes animae,
     Dulce refrigerium,
In labore requies,
In aestu temperies,
     In fletu solacium.

O lux beatissima,
Reple cordis intima,
     Tuorum fidelium:
Sine tuo numine
Nihil est in homine*,
     Nihil est innoxium.

Lava quod est sordidum,
Riga quod est aridum,
     Rege quod est devium,
Fove quod est languidum
Flecte quod est rigidum
     Sana quod est saucium.

Da tuis fidelibus
In te confidentibus
     Sacrum septenarium;
Da virtutis meritum,
Da salutis exitum,
     Da perenne gaudium.
            Latin, 12th century

Come, thou Holy Spirit, come!
And from thy celestial home
     Shed a ray of light divine!
Come, thou Father of the poor!
Come, thou source of all our store!
     Come, within our bosoms shine!

Thou, of comforters the best;
Thou, the soul's most welcome guest;
     Sweet refreshment here below;
In our labor, rest most sweet;
Grateful coolness in the heat;
     Solace in the midst of woe.

O most blessèd Light divine,
Shine within these hearts of thine,
     And our inmost being fill!
Where thou art not, man hath naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought
     Nothing free from taint of ill.

Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour thy dew;
     Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
     Guide the steps that go astray.

On the faithful, who adore
And confess thee, evermore
     In thy sev'nfold gift descend;
Give them virtue's sure reward;
Give them thy salvation, Lord;
     Give them joys that never end.
                 Tr. Edward Caswall, alt.

*The original text had lumine, but this was later changed to homine.

In addition to its rich contribution to the liturgy, this hymn gave rise to a lovely non-liturgical custom. From these words in the fourth verse, "Heal our wounds, our strength renew; On our dryness pour thy dew," there arose the custom of walking barefoot through the dewy grass on Whitsunday morning. Coming from above, like the Spirit on Pentecost, and recalling the water of baptism, this custom was thought to bestow a special blessing on those who practiced it and is a truly homely way to begin the feast.

Finally, in our catalogue of Pentecostal liturgical ideas, we have a suggestion about the Gospel reading. The traditional reading in the Western Rite is from John 14, the section of the Last Supper discourse in which Jesus promises to ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit after he is gone. However, more recent Eucharistic lectionaries, including those of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Church of England, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, assign John 20:19-23, generally as the preferred reading, or at least as an option. We agree with this preference, for two reasons. First of all, the story in John 20 is a resurrection appearance and its use underscores the fact that Pentecost is a continuation of the celebration of Easter. Secondly, as Reginald Fuller points out in Preaching the Lectionary, this story is about baptism: "forgiveness of sins is baptismal language (see Luke 24:47), and what we have here is the Johannine version of the tradition, which includes in the appearance stories the command to baptize." (p. 100)A bishop baptizes on Pentecost

A Red, White, and Green Whitsun

The usual liturgical color for Pentecost in the West is red, the color of the fire which descended on the apostles on that day. In modern times, laypeople have also adopted the custom of wearing something red to church on Pentecost. Although the alternative name for the feast is Whitsun, the custom of the newly baptized wearing white on Pentecost seems to have disappeared, except in the case of those who are actually baptized on the day of Pentecost and may then be wearing a white christening outfit. In the photograph at right, the bishop is vested in red for the feast and also wears the mitre which represents the tongues of fire that were seen over the heads of the apostles on Pentecost. The newly baptized child is clothed in a traditional white christening gown.

There is another color that rightly belongs to Whitsun, and that is green. In the Orthodox Churches, green, the color of life, is the color of the vestments on Pentecost and churches are decorated with both cut and live greenery.  Green also has a place in the spectrum of Pentecost in the West. It is, in some ways, a tenuous connection. Nonetheless, it is one that should not be overlooked. The Hebrew feast of Pentecost, Shavuoth, fifty days after Passover, was a harvest festival, the occasion for the offerings of the first fruits of the wheat harvest. In northern Europe and Britain, the Christian feast of Pentecost attracted to itself elements of various celebrations which celebrated the greening of the land in late spring and early summer. In some northern areas, Pentecost takes the place of the Mayfest. For example, in Silesia the Maypole was not erected until Pentecost and greens were gathered from the woods and fields to decorate churches and homes in a celebration of new life that reflects the church's celebration of new life given by the Spirit. Often, the gathering of greens was accompanied by a search for a figure who embodied in a personal way the idea of new life, a man known by different names in different places, but eventually dubbed the "Green Man." Covered with greens and a mask of bark, he would be escorted into town to preside over the Whitsun games and feasting.

Carvings of the Green Man appear in British churches beginning in the 12th century. His prototype, of course, is much older. His origins are to be found in the ancient god of the woodlands who was known as Sylvanus by the Romans and Cernunnos by the Celts and was related to Dionysos, Misericord (choir seat) - 17th century Belgian, now in the Cathedral of All Saints, Albany, NYthe Greek god of the vine and its fruit. He first appears as a human face in the midst of foliage, but in time the foliage seems to grow from his face and, finally, to grow out of his mouth. Early Christian representations of the Green Man treat him as a demon, a pagan spirit to be resisted. In time a transformation takes place: the Green Man becomes a generally more friendly character, as in the boss from Canterbury, above, a symbol of the goodness of creation and the fruitfulness of the land which spring and summer festivals celebrated. But there always remains a grimmer side to him, as in the misericord at the left, which reminds us that nature also has the potential to harm if it is not properly used and respected. 

The remarkable assimilation of the Green Man into Christian symbolism is particularly well-illustrated by an Easter Sepulchre at the Minster in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. Christ reposes behind the stone tracery of the sepulchre, mourned by his friends, while each corbel on the canopy above is decorated with a Green Man. The gods of the soil who die and rise again annually have come to mourn the true God who died but once and rose again. The marriage of the two similar, yet very different, worlds encapsulates the full meaning of the Incarnation, for when God puts on human flesh in the Incarnation, he unites himself with the whole created order in order to redeem that which is fallen and to restore that which has been corrupted by the Fall of humankind. Although the ancient gods are discredited as gods in the new creation, the cycles of life which they represent continue on with renewed vigor and the ancient symbols are infused with new meaning.

Pentecost is the day on which the Church is empowered by the Spirit and, as we read in Acts, it does indeed spread and bear much fruit, proclaiming the Gospel of the One who died and rose again. As we recognize and welcome the Green Man into our celebrations of the feast, we should not confuse him either with Jesus or with the Holy Spirit, or even with the human race. The Green Man is neither divine nor human. Rather, he is the world in which the drama of salvation takes place, and as such he deserves and even requires our attention and respect. He is cause for celebration as he symbolizes the good creation in which God has placed us. He is cause for celebration as he represents all of the fruits with which creation nourishes us. And he is cause for celebration as his ancient character calls forth in us a spirit of joy and wonder. But he is also cause for concern. He is a reminder of our responsibility as stewards of creation and he is a reminder that we have not always been good stewards. The grimmer Green Men who peer at us from stone and wood in medieval churches look out at a world that has too often exploited the created order and as a result stands in danger of damaging it beyond repair.

How we choose to live out our vocation as Whitsun stewards of the Green will vary, but a full homely divinity compels us to move beyond both church and home to the world beyond to celebrate the good gifts that ultimately come from above and to ensure that the creation which provides them is properly cared for.

Green Man, cast metal, unknown provenance

Whitsun Ales

As Eamon Duffy illustrates in The Voices of Morebath, ales were one of the principal sources of income for the local church in the middle ages, and particularly for the guilds which contributed in various ways to parish life. An ale was more than the barrel of hearty cheer that it took its name from. An ale was a kind of parish supper or picnic, generally with entertainment and often with various wares for sale either for the benefit of the parish or for the benefit of the vendor. The parish or guild that sponsored the event provided the ale, charging for each tankard, of course. Most parishes had certain fixed occasions when they would put on an ale, and there were also ales for special events, such as weddings, whence we get the term bridal, i.e. "bride-ale". One of the most popular and widely observed occasions for an ale was at Whitsun.

Whitsun festivals have a venerable pedigree. It was one of the most important festivals of the royal courts in medieval romances. In the Mort d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory records that King Arthur held a great feast on Pentecost after his coronation and, every year thereafter it was his custom "that at the high feast of Pentecost especially, afore al other high feasts in the yeare, he would not goe that day to meat until he had heard or seene some great adventure or mervaile. And for that custom all manner of strange adventures came before King Arthur at that feast afore all other feasts." Royalty through the ages continued the custom of holding great Whitsun feasts, with tourneys and other entertainments.

The Whitsun ale was the common people's version of these royal festivals. Sometimes, the ale was presided over by persons who were chosen to be king and queen for the day, together with their court. Morris dancing was a popular feature of these Whitsun ales. Shakespeare has the Dauphin of France make mocking reference to this popular custom in Henry V: Morris Dancers, painted glass, Staffordshire

'And let us do it with no show of fear;
No! with no more than if we heard that England
Were busied with a Whitson morris-dance.'

Morris dancing is believed to be a derivative of the Moorish dance known as the Morisco. It appears to have come into England from Spain, possibly by way of France. In any case, it developed its own form, incorporating subjects of existing mummers' plays into the dance. Parish records indicate that some parishes owned costumes to be used by the band of dancers and that woodland characters such as Robin Hood and his band were often portrayed, bringing us again to the green theme of Whitsunday. Project Gutenberg provides the picture at the left of a painted glass window in a house in Betley, Staffordshire, depicting various characters in a Morris Dance, including Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, the Hobby Horse, and, of course, the Maypole (or Pentecost pole) around which they danced. The window is an illustration from The Morris Book by Cecil Sharp which has many more deatils about Morris dancing. Another link, to the Worksop Folk Dance Group, has photos of a modern group wearing various costumes that might have been seen at a medieval Whitsun ale, including a Robin Hood set.

In cathedral cities, Whitsuntide was part of the mystery play season. It should be noted that these productions were not low-budget, amateur affairs. Each play was sponsored by one of the city guilds and all competed to produce the finest and most splendid show, sparing no expense. In Chester, there were 24 plays, with the performances spread over three days, Monday through Wednesday of Whitsun Week. Each play was performed on a stage mounted on wheels so that it could be moved around the city to all of the important points in the city and repeated. The cycle of plays told the entire biblical history, but was by no means limited to information and dialogue actually found in the Bible. For example, the shepherds all present gifts to the Christ Child, and some of them are very interesting, including a bell, a bowl and spoon, a cape, a pair of ould hose, and a nuthook to pull fruit from trees so that old Joseph would not hurt his thumbs. These plays were intended to instruct, to inspire, and sometimes to evoke fear, and the characters were written in such a way that the audience could readily identify with them.

No doubt, there were many games associated with Whitsun ales. For example, horse racing was popular among the English gentry. One old custom that still survives in a few places may suggest the flavor of the kind of games popular among ordinary folk. Cheese rolling may well derive from an ancient pagan custom of rolling great burning disks representing the sun, but its later adaptation is just a raucous and exciting sport that is bound to entertain spectators at the same time that it presents the participants with an opportunity for a bit of dangerous fun, and a free cheese. The custom is simple, a wheel of cheese is sent rolling down a steep hill. The athletes run after it and whoever catches it, or reaches it first at the bottom of the hill gets to take it home. Several years ago, one of the participants in the cheese rolling at Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire ended up in the hospital and the public event was cancelled the following year. To maintain the continuity of the local tradition, there was a private rolling that year, and the following year the public event resumed. Participants prepare for the event in various ways: some have a tankard or two of Whitsun ale to bolster their courage. The BBC has a gallery of photos from the 2006 cheese rolling here. It looks like fun but we think we will take the safer option and get our cheese at the local pub, along with a pint of their finest, and finish off our own Whitsun celebration with that.

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