What's in a Name?
"What's in a name?" comes from Romeo and Juliet where Juliet answers her own question with "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But I think Juliet's request of Romeo to deny his family name and be "new baptized" as her lover (II, ii, 1-2) is really asking him to take on a new name, so the name of something is even important to her. What we call something is important. The Old Testament makes a big deal out of the names of Christ. The New Testament Book of Revelation makes a big deal out of those in Christ being given new names.
Pentecost is the Biblical name for the festival that followed Passover by 50 days. At first in the Old Testament it was observed as a festival of the wheat harvest. Later it commemorated the giving of the Law and the establishment of the Old Testament Church. Christians have celebrated the 50th day after Easter since 217 AD. And the several names they have given this festival in addition to Pentecost do say something about what we're celebrating.
English speaks call it Whitsunday. You should know that if you grew up using The Lutheran Hymnal. There it is on page 72 "Whitsunday, the Feast of Pentecost." Then look what follows? Readings and prayers for having services on both Monday and Tuesday of Whitsunday week. That's how big of a deal Pentecost use to be. But why did the English name it Whitsunday?
Two reasons are given. Either the name comes from the custom of baptizing new converts on Pentecost who were always then dressed in white and Whitsunday is a shortened form of White Sunday, or Whitsunday comes from the early Anglo-Saxon word "wit" which means "wisdom." Pentecost was called "Witsunday" to commemorate the gift of wisdom given by the Holy Spirit. The fact that some medieval documents, the Icelanders, and Welsh actually call it White Sunday" and in Saxon the syllable "Whit" means "white" favors the first explanation (Reed, Lutheran Liturgy, 516).
Both, however, are appropriate. As we sing "love came down at Christmas," so whiteness and wisdom came down at Pentecost. You know why? Because a righteous and wise Man went up 10 days before. Jesus said that He must go away for the Holy Spirit to come because only He could send Him. God the Father couldn't send the Holy Spirit on unholy mankind. That would be like a dove landing on a dead animal. Filthy buzzards and crows do that, not clean doves. In order for the Spirit of holiness and wisdom to land on dead mankind, mankind had to be resurrected.
Jesus started that task at His Baptism. There we saw that the Holy Spirit could land on the Man Jesus because He was holy. Immediately the Devil put Jesus to the test in the wilderness tempting Him in all the ways we are, yet with this difference. The Man Jesus, not using any of His Divine Powers, didn't sin and defeated the Devil. But in order for filthy, dead mankind to be given the Spirit, their sins would have to be answered for. Jesus did that on the cross. Jesus admitted to doing everything you know you've done and even what you'd rather not admit to having done. And there on the cross, God the Father damned His only Son to go to hell to suffer the shame, pain, and horror we only get little tastes of. The Father shows He accepts what Jesus did in our place by raising Him on Easter, and on Ascension the Man Jesus takes the place He won for mankind in heaven.
Jesus has won the right to send the Spirit of whiteness and wisdom on all mankind. On this Whitsunday rejoice that for Jesus' sake the Spirit brings a white, bright holiness to cover your sinfulness before the eyes of God and gives a divine wisdom to your heart that sees a crucified Man is your God, your death is life, and your suffering is glory.
Among the English Pentecost is called Whitsunday. In some parts of Scotland it is called Beltane. The non-Christian Druid's had a festival by this name at the beginning of May. Beltane means "fire of God." A large fire was kindled on some high spot in honor of the sun's return after the gloom of winter (Bulfinch's Mythology, 359). Beltane is what some Christian Scots call Pentecost. "Fire of God" is certainly a fitting name for today since little tongues of fire appeared on the heads of the apostles when the Holy Spirit came upon them. In the Old Testament God lit the fire for the Old Testament divine service by sending fire from heaven. On Beltane, God lights the fire for Divine Service in the New Testament. Divine Service, right worship is a gift of God's Spirit to fallen mankind.
Apart from the Holy Spirit people think of worship as something they offer to God, something they must kindle in their heart by faith, by devotion, by piety, by sacrifice. This is really paganism. Read how the prophets of Baal thought they could get their god to answer with fire from heaven by strong emotions, fervent praying, and by hurting themselves. No worship, divine service is something God must ignite in our hearts from above.
Here is the answer to the oft felt and sometimes said, "I don't get anything out of the service." The answer is not to change the service; the answer is not to add things that stir up emotions, make people feel good, or provide an emotional release. The answer is for the Holy Spirit won for us and sent to us by Jesus to build a fire under us. The expression "build a fire under" comes from cotton belt farmers. When one of their mules would stretch all four legs out, it couldn't be made to move by coaxing or beating, so they would build a small fire under the mule's belly to make it move (Garrison, Why You Say It, pp. 177-178).
When our worship is cold and our hearts are colder, grabbing ourselves by the collar and saying, "What's wrong with you? Get a hold of yourself! Be more grateful, thankful, worshipful. Don't you know Jesus died for you? Don't you know you're going to live forever?" That's like a mule trying to build a fire under itself. How could it with all four legs planted firmly in the ground? No Jesus sent the Fire of God to do that for us on this festival some Scots call "Beltane."
From England we get Whitsunday, from Scotland we get Beltane, now we go to Italy, Sicily in particular, for my favorite name for Pentecost: Pascha rosarum. To commemorate the Pentecost miracle, churches have done many things. They've had the Pentecost account read in unison in different languages. They've had the congregation hold up lit lighters. They've used rushing wind noises. The only one I would do if I could find a way is the one from which Pentecost gets the name Pascha rosarum, Feast of Roses. Rose pedals are dropped from the ceiling of the church (Feast Day Cookbook, 74). Picture soft, red, fragrant rose pedals floating down on all the congregation. Here your sense of smell, sight, touch, and maybe even taste are engaged. Here you get a tangible sense of the Holy Spirit.
This is important. You don't want to think that Jesus ascended into heaven and sent His Holy Spirit so that now the only way God engages you is through the realm of the intangible Spirit. Yes, on Whitsunday, Beltane, and Pascha rosarum Jesus gives His holiness, wisdom and fire by sending His Holy Spirit. Yes, holiness, wisdom, and the fire of true worship are all in the realm of the Spirit. But how do you know where the Holy Spirit is since already before the last apostle had died, John said that there were many false spirits gone out into the world? Well where did the tongues of fire land the first Pentecost? On the apostles, but their person is not important. Their mouths are. On the Feast of Roses the rose pedals specifically commemorate the miracle of the apostles speaking in many different languages the mighty acts God does in Christ.
Where the apostolic word is, there the Holy Spirit is with Jesus' holiness, wisdom and fire. Though it first, as in Acts, cuts people to the heart exposing their sin, guilt, shame, and the hopelessness of ever going to heaven, that's not the end game of Jesus. His endgame is your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Therefore, He sends the apostolic Word into your ears in Absolution, so you might know you have the Spirit of Holiness though all you can see and feel is your sinfulness. Jesus sent to little Luke today the apostolic Word joined to the waters of Baptism so we might know today and Luke forever that he has the Spirit of Wisdom that knows God is His heavenly Father and Jesus is His Bother and Savior. Jesus sends us the apostolic Word joined to Bread and Wine to give us His Body and Blood so that we might know we have the Spirit of Fire in our tired, old, ailing bodies.
If the Spirit of Fire came to you directly without means, it would burn you to a crisp. If the Spirit of Wisdom came apart from means, it would overload your brain with too much information. If the Spirit of Holiness came to you apart from Water, Words, Bread or Wine, He would blind you. So Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to dead, dirty sinners like us in a tangible, yet usable way. He joins His all-powerful Spirit to Waters that are so safe that a baby can bathe in them. He joins His omnipotent Spirit to simple, clear Words that are fragrant with forgiveness. The almighty Holy Spirit is in approachable, edible Bread and Wine because gentle Jesus, the Rose of Sharon, puts Himself there for us to eat and drink.
What do these three means of giving us the Spirit have in common? The Word, the Word, the Word. What do the rose pedals commemorate? The red tongues in the mouths of the Apostles. The Word that comes out of those mouths bespeaks us holy, imparts wisdom, and rekindles the fire of true worship in us. That Word is not boring line upon line to you as it is to unbelief. No it's fire, light, and lamp. That Word is not foolishness to you as it is to those perishing but wisdom beyond all wisdom; that Word is not the odor of death to you as it is to those dying in their sins but the sweet odor of life rather like rose pedals.
What's in a name? Quite a lot actually. A rose by any other name might smell as sweet but if you told someone a rose was named dirt, thorn, or ivy, I doubt they'd go and smell it. So, may the apostolic Words be as rose pedals to you - to attract, delight, and be used by you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Feast of Pentecost (20100523)