The pastor’s wife took a deep breath as she watched Mrs. Jones approach. Mrs. J, wife of the junior warden, was decked out in a handsome scarlet skirt suit, with shiny red does, topped off with a wide brimmed red hat complete with a peppy flower. She was also the self-appointed “Pentecost police.” Every year, on this high and holy feast, she had her eye out for the churchgoer who wasn’t wearing any of the traditional red, and provided such delinquents with the verbal equivalent of a Saint Patrick’s day pinch. But this year, this pastor’s wife was prepared.
Prancing on her red heels, Mrs. Jones walked up to the spouse of her spiritual leader with that knowing little smirk that lay somewhere between patronizing and victorious. From the safe abode of a blue sunday dress in a fetching floral print, the pastor’s wife smiled back. “My dear,” Mrs. Jones asked, “aren’t you wearing any red today?”
“Why yes,” the pastor’s wife replied. “Just not that you can see.”
This little anecdote is a slightly embellished version of a joke that makes its way around Anglican/Episcopal circles. The association of the symbol of fire has led to the tradition of wearing red on Pentecost, which is taken more or less seriously by different church cultures.
The symbolism of fire comes immediately from the story of Pentecost itself, as told in Acts 2. Why fire? What does it make you think of? It makes me think of passion and energy, of heat and purity, and of upward-directedness (have you ever seen fire burn downward?). Perhaps if you have a fireplace (as we now do, woohoo!) you think also of warmth, comfort, and shelter in a dangerously cold world. But to know what this symbol stands for in the Bible, we should remind ourselves of other stories in which fire, both literal and metaphorical, plays a prominent role.
In the early stories of the people of God, God likes to appear in fire. Think of Moses and the burning bush, of the pillar of fire and cloud that led Israel through the desert and stood between them and the Egyptians, and the Shekinah glory that descended on the tabernacle. Angels, who live nearer to the presence of God than we experience, appear sometimes as flames of fire. (See Hebrews 1:7 for an example.) In summary, when God is first present to his people, it’s in fire, and as far more than a sign that points to something else, but as a symbol in which the thing itself is communicated. When those tongues of fire landed on the heads of the apostles, God in the person of the Holy Spirit was present in them as individuals and as a group, as people, in a new way.
What does that symbol, God’s chosen vehicle of his presence, tell us about God? The first thing I think of is a purifying force. “Our God is a consuming fire,” the psalmist says. (Anyone remember this song?) A fire which purifies does so by destroying impurities – and sometimes the object thrust into the fire doesn’t survive. In such cases, fire is a solely destructive force – think of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This rightly associates the symbol of fire with pain and suffering, and ultimately with death. This is awfully (in the old sense) disheartening, as sometimes I look at the purifying fire that the Holy Spirit is taking me through, and I ask, “Am I going to survive?” The possibility of survival is only through Jesus, who when he died, passed through the fires of hell. But hell could not hold him, so because I am in him, I have a chance. Thus, the red for Pentecost appropriately harkens back to the red of Holy Week, in which we remember Jesus’ suffering.
This also explains why God holds back – why he’s slow with us, why he takes his time in returning. It take time to get to the point that being with God won’t just destroy us. An old Eastern image has heaven and hell being the same place, in the presence of God. For those in Christ, this is the joyous reunion that was always meant to be; without him, it’s the ultimate in suffering.
In most Christian traditions, Pentecost is considered in some sense to be the birthday of the church. Jesus’ work of forming and commissioning the church had been happening throughout his entire ministry, with culminating moments at both the Last Supper and at the Ascension. But at Pentecost, with the receipt of the Holy Spirit, the Church as the body of Christ, with the job of continuing Christ’s work on earth, was fully realized for the first time.
That mission leads the church, and every Christian, onto the way of the cross. For us, forgiven and adopted into the family of God but still struggling with sinful habits, that way of the cross leads us to die to ourselves, the purifying presence of God leading us to suffer and grow and change. But it also changes us to become in our persons, in our lives, and in our ability to love, that presence of God to others.
As I like to say, that’s “le cray-cray.”
This is the first in a series of essays exploring themes of Pentecost, accompanying the Pentecost Mystery KAL. You may join the KAL at anytime.