6. Pentecost or Whitsunday
Antiquities of the Christian Church
XXI. Sacred Seasons, Festivals and Fasts
6. Pentecost or Whitsunday
This season has reference to the ascension of our Lord and the commencement of the christian church by the descent of the Holy Ghost. The foregoing high feasts comprise the great events of his earthly existence. This sets forth his exaltation at the right hand of God, where he fulfilled his promise of sending the Holy Spirit, the Comforter; and, as the invisible head of the church on earth, he continued still to govern it by his miraculous agency. Herein was manifested the first display of his heavenly grace; so that though he dwelt no more with us, he was still, as during his abode on earth, full of grace and truth.
The feast in question is based on historical and doctrinal truth, which, like those facts on which the other great feasts rely, is substantiated by historical evidence. The ascension of our Lord is an historical fact; and this festival is based on the most important circumstance connected with that fact – the effusion of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost.
Both the Greek and Latin churches agree in beginning this sacred festival with the Ascension Feast, and end it with Pentecost. The Greek church admit of no Trinity Feast within this sacred season, but in the place of it celebrate the feast of All Saints and Martyrs. The former can claim no higher antiquity than the ninth century, and probably was not fully established until the fourteenth. But there was very early a feast day of the Apostles, in the Western church, which afterwards became the feast day of Philip and James. This was in all probability the origin of the modern Whitsunday, being much earlier than that of All Saints, instituted A. D. 834, or, according to others, 751, or 610.
The Ascension feast was established in the fourth century as one of the great festivals; but it may have been celebrated, notwithstanding, at a period still earlier. Nor need it appear surprising that two events were commemorated by one festive season. For the same is true of the Jewish festival, which included the feast of firstfruits and of the promulgation of the law, Exod. 23:
16, Lev. 23:14–21, Num. 28:26. Indeed this festival, in many respects, bears a very close analogy to that of the Jews; and evidently is little else than a modification of it. The converts of that day, when the Holy Ghost descended, were ihejirst-fruits of the Spirit. Jerome elegantly contrasts this with the giving of the law on Sinai: "Utraque facta est quinquagessimo die, a Paschate; illo, in Sina; haec, in Sion. Ibi tcrrae motu contremuit mens; hie, domus apostolorum. Ibi, inter flammas ignium et micantia fulgura, turbo ventorum, et fragor tonitruorum personuit; hie, cum ignearum visione linguarum, sonitus pariter de coelo, tanquam spirilus vehementis advenit. Ibi, clangor buccinae, legis verba perstrepuit; hie, tuba evangelica Apostolorum ore intonuit." .
The feast has been celebrated at different times for one day, for seven days, and again for three. The religious solemnities of this occasion were very much the same as on the other great festivals. It was one of the three baptismal seasons, and derives the name of Whitsunday or white-Sunday from the circumstance that so many were clad in white on this day at their baptism. Homilies were delivered as on the other festivals, and the sacrament administered.
As an instance of the extravagant folly of popish superstition, it may not be impertinent to add that the Catholics were accustomed to throw down fire from the arches above, to denote the cloven tongues. Flowers of various hues were scattered, in token of the various tongues and gifts of the Spirit. And doves were let loose to flutter about the church as an emblem of the Spirit's presence.
Concil. Constant. A. D. 1094: J. D. Winckler, de iis quae circa festum Peniec. sunt memorabilia.
Teriull. De Bapt. c. 19: Hieron. in Zach. 14: 8.
Durandus rat. div. off. vi. c. 107.