Occasionally, I have heard Pentecost called the Church’s birthday. There is truth in this understanding; the day on which the Apostles received the Holy Spirit is necessarily, at least, a new beginning:
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. ()
Something novel is clearly afoot, and undoubtedly the Spirit bears Itself down to kindle a new love in the hearts of those present. And yet, every birthday, every Pentecost, is a time for remembrance, for the recollection of our deeds from year to year and from ecclesiastical birthday to ecclesiastical birthday. Often gathered with our families, birthdays are as much moments of reflection as of celebration. This spirit of inspired remembrance even finds formulation at the original Pentecost, when St. Peter invokes the prophet Joel:
It shall come to pass
I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even upon your male and female servants,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.
I will set signs in the heavens and on the earth,
blood, fire, and columns of smoke;
The sun will darken,
the moon turn blood-red,
Before the day of the LORD arrives,
that great and terrible day.
Then everyone who calls upon the name of the LORD
will escape harm.
For on Mount Zion there will be a remnant,
as the LORD has said,
And in Jerusalem survivors
whom the LORD will summon. ()
In a similar way, recollection and rejuvenation also stand at the center of our liturgical expressions for Pentecost. In the West, red predominates, symbolizing the tongues of fire, that is, those inspired marks of the descent of the Holy Spirit. In the East, churches are typically awash with green, a representation of new life, of the possibilities made concrete by the force of God’s love.
Taken together, these two traditions reflect the dual role of Pentecost (as a birthday): a recollection of the past, of the events of our lives (red—the color of the original flames) and a celebration of the rejuvenated potential we experience as we move forward in history (green—the color of growth, a sign of new life). This twofold symbolism inheres in the association of Pentecost with baptism, lest we forget the words of John the Baptist: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire” (). This sacrament is simultaneously a representation of new life, and, as something we remember periodically, a constantly renewing power, a promise to which we always return and against which we measure our actions. It is the same with Pentecost.
In this sense, this holiday is more than simply an act of cold remembrance; rather, it stands as an invitation to new life through the recollection of the previous works of the Spirit. As a birthday, this holy day asks us, as the Church, to look back on our roots in self-scrutiny while always keeping in mind the renewing effects of God’s love and mercy (and what could be more fitting for a feast that typically falls about halfway through the year!).
With this in mind, we might even remember Moses, whose encounter was with a bush, a living organism in the world, alight with the burning presence of the divine, has obvious associations with the historical and liturgical schema of Pentecost. Perhaps, then, those words heard on Mount Horeb best summarize the declaration (and invitation) of this holy day: “I will be with you; and this will be your sign that I have sent you” ().