Pentecost: The Great Red Letter Day

The term “Red Letter Day” probably goes back to 325 AD when the First Council of Nicaea decreed that great feasts be marked in red on the calendar.  Pentecost is quite literally a Red Letter Day since its liturgical color is red to match the holy fire that came down on the apostles fifty days after the Resurrection, remaking the world.  From time to time, pious souls urge that there be a “new Pentecost” of the Church.  We can understand what that means, but the term must not be taken literally, as there was one Pentecost for all time, as there was one Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension.  We do need to enter anew into the power of the Pentecostal gift that has never left the church. So Saint Hilary of Poitiers wrote in his treatise on the Holy Trinity:

“Unless it absorbs the gift of the Spirit through faith, the mind has the ability to know God but lacks the light necessary for that knowledge. This unique gift which is in Christ is offered in its fullness to everyone. It is everywhere available, but it is given to each man in proportion to his readiness to receive it. Its presence is the fuller, the greater a man’s desire to be worthy of it. This gift will remain with us until the end of the world, and will be our comfort in the time of waiting. By the favors it bestows, it is the pledge of our hope for the future, the light of our minds, and the splendor that irradiates our understanding.”

The revised liturgical practice of extinguishing the Paschal candle on Pentecost strikes me as something of a contradiction, for it is odd to put out the flame on the day that celebrates the bestowal of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of flame.   Much more symbolic was the custom of extinguishing the candle on Ascension Day, as our Lord ascends, not to leave us comfortless, but to send the Comforter.  That works much better when Ascension Day is celebrated on the actual Thursday which is the fortieth day in the symmetry of the historical events.  I regret more that Pentecost ends with a liturgical thud on the next Monday.  If Pentecost has no Advent like the Nativity and no Lent like the Resurrection, it should at least have an octave of rejoicing when all is bright red, instead of going immediately into the green of Ordinary Time which almost gives the impression of a postpartum depression.

Man cannot be what God wants him to be without putting the gifts of Pentecost to work. Saint Augustine said that God made us without our help but He will not remake us without our help.  We did not invent the biological process by which we were conceived and given the 46 chromosome when we were “zygotes” which encode the physical nature that we have throughout life. We do though have a moral freedom to decide how we are going to use that physical life.

The Holy Spirit gives each of us in Confirmation, as he gifted the whole Church at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem, seven powers to enable God to make us what He wants us to be: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. It is good to study the subtle differences between these gifts, which can easily be done by reading the Catechism, and praying daily for their increase. This is what Blessed Teresa of Calcutta meant when she used to say so often, “Just give God permission.”

There is no need to regret lost opportunities when we still have the breath of life, if we let the Holy Spirit breathe into that life the love that made us.  What you might have wanted to become does not matter, so long as you let God make us what he intends you to be.  Thomas S. Jones, a New York poet who died in 1932,  wrote a gentle poem that still crops up from time to time:

ACROSS the fields of yesterday
He  sometimes comes to me,
A  little lad just back from play—
The  lad I used to be.

And  yet he smiles so wistfully
Once  he has crept within,
I wonder if he hopes to see
The  man I might have been.

We would be condemned to perpetual wistfulness at the recollection of unfilled promise, were it not for what the Holy Spirit can still make us with our consent.  Aristotle taught that the qualities of a good rhetorician are Ethos (talents and integrity of character),  Logos (right use of the mind), and Pathos (sharing a sense of the challenges of life in a difficult world).   The Holy Spirit shifts this to a formula for holiness by an Ethos that shares the heritage of the saints, a Logos which is God’s own truth, and the triumphal suffering of Christ who died and rose again so that we might live forever with Him.

So Pentecost is the reddest of Red Letter Days and the rest of the year not only basks in its glow but grows and abounds by the fire of such Love.

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

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