PENTECOST, COMMONLY CALLED WHITSUNDAY
This great holy day is graced with one of the Church's greatest hymns, the Veni, Creator Spiritus. One of the oldest hymns in our Hymnal, it is the only metrical hymn contained in the Prayer Book itself, and has been there in the Ordinal since the original edition of 1550. This noble hymn occurs no fewer than four times in as many translations in our Hymnal (Hymns 108, 217, 218, and 371).
The two opening words are striking. The Holy Ghost, the Third Person of the Undivided Trinity, is addressed as “Creator.” This carries us right back to Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Then Moses proceeded to declare that the original creation of the universe was the work of the entire Trinity. “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Here, in the Bible's opening chapter, is a picture of the Holy Ghost, the same Wind or Breath which our Saviour exhaled upon His disciples on the evening of Easter Day. That Spirit active in the beginning is the same Spirit which came with great power (and the sound of a "rushing mighty wind") upon the helpless infant Church on the following Pentecost. These two givings of the Spirit are two phases of one great gift which ties together Easter Day and today's great feast, exactly fifty days later. What began with a gentle breath on Easter Day has turned into a powerful windstorm on Pentecost. The Spirit is a wondstorm which has never ceased to blow.
But this powerful and mysterious Spirit, we must repeat, was already there at the beginning. But what happened in the ministry of Jesus, a ministry finished once for all when He ascended, but still continued in the work of the Spirit here and now, is not just a “change for the better,” or a “fresh start,” but nothing less than a New Creation. In our Baptism (where the Spirit of God still moves upon the face of the waters!) we are miraculously made a part of this New Creation.
But the very first word, Veni, which means “Come,” should be the key-word of this holy feast. Why implore the Spirit to “come” when He has already come long ago? Unlike the events of our Lord's life, death, and resurrection, Pentecost celebrates an event not yet complete, an event still in process. The Holy Ghost, God Himself, has come and continues to come. As He came into the hearts and lives of the earliest disciples in AD 30, so He is coming now into our hearts and lives as well. As the fragile Church, just a few weeks from Calvary, was empowered, so our equally fragile Church continues to receive power to become witnesses to Jesus, His victory and His kingdom.
In AD 30, this day almost seemed to be the birthday of the Church. And in AD 2008 it proclaims our rebirth into God's New Creation. As Charles Wesley wrote,
“Finish then thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee.”
This Holy Day is frequently but erroneously called “the birthday of the Church.” as if the sudden powerful visitation of the Holy Ghost, the third person of the Trinity, had created the Christian community where none had existed before. No, there was already a Church there on that Pentecost morning. It had existed at least from the time that the Lord Jesus had begun to collect disciples, when He gave the invitation, “Come, follow me.”
But today does mark another birthday, an important milestone in the history of the Church, at least in our Anglican branch of the Church Catholic. Today and every celebration of Whitsunday represents the birthday of the Prayer Book. Today our beloved Book of Common Prayer is 462 years old. We speak all too frequently of “the 1928 Prayer Book” and give the false impression that our liturgy sprang into existence in the era of the roaring twenties. What happened in 1928 was only a light revision of a Book which was already ancient.
On Whitsunday in the year 1549, when the boy king Edward VI was on the throne of England, the very first edition of the Book of Common Prayer came into use throughout the land of England, in all cathedral and parish churches. The book had been in preparation for several years, under the guidance of Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Some parts of it (particularly the Litany, and also the Bidding, General Confession, Absolution, Comfortable Words, and Prayer of Humble Access) had been in use already. Most of the Book, especially the Collects, Epistles and Gospels, was even in 1549 about 1,000 years old. The original Prayer Book was no new creation, but a careful compilation of the Church's worship, with many elements handed down from the time of Christ and His Apostles.
Our Prayer Book is not only a precious family antique but still serves us well as the clearest statement our common faith as Anglican members of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. If you have a question, What do Anglicans believe about almost any topic, the place to find an authoritative answer is in the Prayer Book.
After its original edition in 1549, the Prayer Book has been tweaked gently several times in its history, most recently in 1928. But the book from which we pray this Pentecost is essentially the same as that compiled and published nearly half a millennium ago. We give thanks to God today of this essential part of our holy heritage.