Joined: 16 Nov 2006
|Posted: Thu Jun 04, 2015 1:34 pm Post subject: Whitsun Service by Jo James
by Jo Jame
Today is Pentecost; in Judaism; Shauvot, the Festival of Weeks, is celebrated fifty days after Pesach, Passover.
Never afraid of being accused of synchretism the early Christians were not even aware of the possibility of initiating a new religion, they were simply part of a movement of reform, a handful of Jewish radicals and their calendar followed the Jewish one exactly.
Traditionally known as Whitsun (for reasons which seem obscure) Whit Sunday was followed by ‘Whit weeks’, when workplaces, mines and factories would shut completely. Ordinary folk would traditionally buy new clothes. a time of celebration and happiness, often a time of weddings, Philip Larkin’s lovely poem Whitsun Weddings, written in the 50’s, celebrates this. It was a time of Christenings and fairs. There’s still a fair this weekend in Roundhay park, and all over the country elsewhere there are fairs and dances, morris and folk events (some spectacularly strange). Many churches will participate in a Whit walk to emphasise the ecumenical character of the festival.
The name Whitsun could be from the white clothes of baptisms and marriages or from the word wit as in wit and wisdom.
In the book of Acts by the author of Luke, Jesus’ disciples had gathered to celebrate Shauvot, the festival of weeks. Like the celebration of passover, when Jesus had shared the last supper a few days before his execution, this event also takes place in an upper room, which is a metaphor of the spiritually significant for this writer.
The spirit of God descended on the disciples in tongues of fire, we are told, fire which recalls the apparitions of God in Exodus, the burning bush and the column of fire, but on this occasion the one of the gifts the Spirit brings is the capacity to be understood in all languages, so this writer is dramatically bringing a conclusion to the story of Babel, when humankind had lost the capacity to speak together universally.
There is another reference point with the book of Exodus which is worth considering here. The Jewish festival of Passover celebrates the emancipation from slavery of the people of Israel. The Writers of the Gospels were deliberate when they emphasised that the crucifixion took place at this festival. The crucifixion is shown to also be a liberation.
Fifty days after the liberation, in the book of Exodus, Moses is given the Law, the Torah, on the mountain shrouded in smoke. So its significant that at the Jewish festival which remembers this event, the memorial holiday of a direct message from God - the disciples receive this new epiphany.
Some Christian traditions have in my opinion misinterpreted this as a ‘new dispensation’, a superseding of the previous tradition - I don’t see it that way at all, I see instead a deliberate re-emphasis of the tradition in Judaism which acknowledges the Spirit of God as the supreme force of inspiration in human affairs, and it is for this reason that I feel that Whitsun can and should be so important for Unitarians…
The great New Testament Scholar JG Dunn has said that the Spirit of God is always synonymous with God in Judaism; in the Hebrew Bible the Spirit is not a separate person or persona. The Spirit in Hebrew is referred to as Ruach, which literally means Breath.
The word for spirit in many cultures has this interesting derivational link with the word for breath; anima and psyche, atman, ruach.
The Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, writes:
The letters of the name of god in Hebrew are Yod, hay, vav, and hay. They are frequently mispronounced as “Yahveh". But in truth they are unutterable. … This word is the sound of breathing. The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.
(I’m grateful to my colleague Rev. Sheena Gabriel for sourcing this quote)
Last week if you recall I mentioned a fairly recent development in physics called complexity theory, Fritjof Capra who has popularised this theory has said that the underlying feature of complexity is the principle of creativity, and he notes that it is the first development in physical science which creates a space for the idea of the Spirit.
These days all sorts of new kinds of ‘spirituality’, find expression in practices and ways which bring awareness to the act of breathing – mindfulness, meditation, yoga and others. For some reason these ways are often viewed as less uncool than coming to Church or chapel but the reality is that the effect is the same. And even here our new services of contemplative worship often focus on breath and breathing as a readily available way of quickly accessing profound resources and approaches to the divine.
The breath, is literally the inspiration. In metaphorical and mythic terms the ‘creator’ God is called Ruach, breath. In artistic terms inspiration (literally in spire ation- to breathe in) produces creativity.
Sidney Spencer once principle of the Unitarian training college in Oxford wrote that whilst once inspiration of the Spirit was thought to be confined only to the Prophets, our modern understanding has acknowledged that inspiration is common to all artists whose work can be seen to express truth, all artists whose focus is on revealing and not concealing - or merely decorating. We acknowledge that working with the spirit, instead of obstructing the flow of inspiration, is an inspired spiritual act, we hear it for example when great composers are faithfully represented by virtuoso musicianship and thats why Unitarianism above any oher denomination places such emphasis on poetry and other secular literature, painting and drama, recognising that revelation is not sealed, not something which happened once long ago in the deserts of Palestine but ongoing, outflowing working and working out its emerging life. The life of the spirit.
in our first reading we heard a very pivotal theological vision of the spirit as breath - the prophet is asked to prophesy, rather like a preacher being ordered to preach.
Ezekiel 37 : 1-14
The famous account of the animation of the dry bones is not any faith test or any mere proof of power but a specific example of the miraculous power of the spirit to revitalise and re animate. And I think that Ezekiel’s message from the seventh century is incredibly relevant for this chapel facing its own particular challenges in this precise day and age. So its appropriate that Ezekiel is one of the prophets behind me here on the mosaic. Because the story reveals that it is the spirit which gives life, not the bare bones, we won't find revival from going through the motions of worship, coming because thats what we do, repeating the same old traditions for the sake of preserving them, life will be brought again not by the fabric or form but by the spirit, the spirit of the sacred, the spirit of holiness, the spirit of truth which blows away dust and decay from the four corners of the earth.
Philip Larkin’s poem Whitsun Weddings records a train which is boarded by newly wed couples at each station on its journey on whit Saturday. He writes that “what it held stood ready to be loosed with all the power that being changed can give”
The gift of the spirit is transformative, like artistic gifts it demands expression and like the fire of YHVH it demands change.
But the spirit also is the comforter, bringing hope, advocating for the poor and the downtrodden, bringing gentleness - and above all bringing love.