The Season of Pentecost
Pentecost is the great festival that marks the birth of the Christian church by the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost means “fiftieth day” and is celebrated fifty days after Easter Sunday. The Day of Pentecost is one of the seven principal feasts of the church year in the Episcopal Church (BCP, p. 15), and is identified by the BCP as one of the feasts that is “especially appropriate” for baptism (p. 312).
The season after Pentecost, according to the calendar of the church year (BCP, p. 32), begins on the Monday following Pentecost, and continues through most of the summer and autumn. It may include as many as twenty-eight Sundays, depending on the date of Easter. This includes Trinity Sunday which is the First Sunday after Pentecost. The BCP provides proper collects and readings for the other Sundays of the season. These propers are numbered and designated for use on the Sundays which are closest to specific days in the monthly calendar, whether before or after. For example, Proper 3 is designated for use, if needed, on the Sunday closest to May 25. Proper 29 is designated for use on the Sunday closest to Nov. 23. Prior to the 1979 BCP, Sundays in this long period of the church year were identified and counted in terms of the number of Sundays after Trinity Sunday instead of the number of Sundays after Pentecost. This period is also understood by some as “ordinary time,” a period of the church year not dedicated to a particular season or observance.
Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the twelve apostles, Jesus’ mother and family, and many other of His disciples gathered together in Jerusalem for the Jewish harvest festival that was celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. While they were indoors praying, a sound like that of a rushing wind filled the house and tongues of fire descended and rested over each of their heads. This was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on human flesh promised by God. The disciples were suddenly empowered to proclaim the gospel of the risen Christ. They went out into the streets of Jerusalem and began preaching to the crowds gathered for the festival. Not only did the disciples preach with boldness and vigor, but by a miracle of the Holy Spirit they spoke in the native languages of the people present, many of whom had come from all corners of the Roman Empire. The apostle Peter seized the moment and addressed the crowd, preaching to them about Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. The result was that about three thousand converts were baptized that day. The account can be found in the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-41.
Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost Sunday. Red recalls the tongues of flame in which the Holy Spirit descended on the first Pentecost. The Season after Pentecost begins with an observance of Trinity Sunday when we remember and honor the Triune God revealed to us in and through the life of the Resurrected Christ. On this Sunday, white is the color of the day. From this Sunday on, the color will be green as we move into ordinary time and hear the lessons of Jesus’ teachings and learn how to live the Christian life. The color for the season after Pentecost is green to symbolize the growth and life of the church. It is the longest season of the church year, from Trinity Sunday until the first Sunday of Advent.
A tradition of some churches in ancient times was to baptize adult converts to the faith on Pentecost. The newly baptized catechumens would wear white robes on that day, so Pentecost was often called “Whitsunday” or “White Sunday” after these white baptismal garments. Many Christian calendars, liturgies, and hymnals still use this term.
The Liturgy on the Sundays after Pentecost
The liturgy changes in an important way after the Day of Pentecost. Rather than taking place within specific seasons, each with its own theme, this period does not have one overall theme. Each Sunday takes its theme from the Gospel reading for that day and from the biblical and liturgical meaning of Sunday as the Lord’s Day.
The most notable feature of this period is that we finish reading substantially all of one Gospel each year, having begun this in Advent and Epiphany. The three-year lectionary appoints one of the three “synoptic” Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—for each year. John’s Gospel is used throughout the three years for certain Holy Days, Lent, and Easter, and in filling out the Gospel of Mark, which is considerably shorter than the others, in Year B. We also read several of the epistles each year during this period. Finally, the Old Testament readings are chosen to complement the Gospel reading each Sunday. Most often they are events or prophecies which point to the work of Christ in the Gospel passage they accompany.
This, then, is a period in which the liturgy Sunday after Sunday leads us into a serious consideration of the content of Holy Scripture in an orderly way. This time in the Church Year is a time to build on the growth and renewal of grace we experienced in the first half of the year, a time to prepare ourselves to celebrate more fully when we come around again to the seasons from Advent through Easter.
From The Rite Light: Reflections on the Sunday Readings and Seasons of the Church Year. Copyright © 1998 by Michael W. Merriman. Church Publishing Incorporated, New York.