Pentecost: The Soul’s Most Welcome Guest

I await the Feast of Pentecost each year with anticipation, hoping to feel God’s presence. Putting on a red sweater, the color of the day, I’m always eager to be part of the celebration. Red, the color of fire and the tongues of flame that rested atop the Apostles heads. Red, the color of God’s love.

Scripture says that at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enabled the Apostles to speak in other languages, previously unknown to them. Native speakers heard the stories of kindness, peace, love, and redemption in their own languages. It must have been a powerful moment after months, or even years, speaking Aramaic or Greek as they followed Christ to now hear these wonders spoken in the language of their childhoods, the language their mothers whispered as they fell asleep at night.

When my husband and I were dating, we attended a weekly ecumenical Taize service at Stanford University. In preparation for the scripture readings, the priest would ask those who were bilingual to read the text in another language. It was exhilarating to hear these sacred words read first in English, then in Spanish, Chinese, Hindi. My soul was affirmed as I heard these truths, again and again in different languages. My faith was not just true for me. It was true for all people.

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The Oculus at Seattle’s St. James Cathedral at Pentecost. Photo by M. Laughlin, St. James Cathedral.

At my parish, Seattle’s St. James Cathedral, the great oculus is decorated for the Feast of Pentecost with majestic drapes of red fabric that flow from the dome’s skylight like a waterfall. I reach up toward the dome as if I could grasp the ends of the fabric and touch the hand of God like a child reaching for her father.

During the procession, the Eucharistic ministers carry banners, one of the few times of the year this happens. One of them bears the icon of Pentecost where the Apostles sit in a semi-circle as rays of light descend from heaven, baptizing them in the Holy Spirit.

Yet, in all this pageantry, it is the “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” the prayer sung only on Pentecost Sunday, that I most look forward to:

Thou, the soul’s most welcome guest;

sweet refreshment here below;

in our labour, rest most sweet;

grateful coolness in the heat;

solace in the midst of woe …

The Medieval prayer has survived changes in the liturgy over of the last century and has been set to music by many composers. At my parish, it’s sung in Latin, giving it an otherworldly feeling, an ancient quality, which makes me feel connected to the ancient church. The voices begin in a low hum, then rise as a cacophony until resting in sweet peace. It sounds much like the violent wind described in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven upon the Apostles like fiery flames. The sounds make the hair on my arms rise and my shoulders shiver.

I tug at my sweater to clear the goosebumps as I sing the “Veni Sancte Spiritus” with my fellow parishioners. Come, Holy Spirit. The prayer refers to the Holy Spirit as “the soul’s most welcome guest.” Isn’t He? St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that our very crying out, our longing for God, is the Spirit affirming that we are His children. We belong to Him.

By sending the Holy Spirit, God invites us to understand one another. Have you ever had that experience where you know someone is a fellow believer, a sister or brother in Christ, without knowing them? Or when you can see that someone is hurting when they haven’t told you at thing? God enables us to see each other as He does, as precious children of God. Come, Holy Spirit, we pray, “from thy celestial home, shed a ray of light divine!” Come, bring a bit of heaven to us on earth.

Originally published May 31, 2017