Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Of Oil and the Holy Spirit

One of the pleasures of living in the community of Holy Cross Monastery, at least for me, is the consistent creativity with which we approach our celebrations of the liturgical year as well as other events of our lives. We like celebrating and we do it well and when something has worn thin, we aren't afraid to say "this isn't doing it" and to look for better solutions.

And so, a number of years ago, we decided that our usual celebration of Pentecost "wasn't doing it", and we wanted to look for a liturgical 'container' that would really celebrate the Feast of the Coming of the Holy Spirit, which marks the end of the Easter season. We started with several meetings in which we talked about what we wanted to celebrate - what are the themes of Pentecost, what would be like to emphasize? Of course the event itself - the Speaking in Tongues first given to the Apostles - was major. And then what our attention focused on was the movement of the Spirit-life of Christ from the historical person of Jesus into the Church. Pentecost is intended to be a mark of the birth of the Church as a body that lives Christ's life and continues Christ's ministry. This seemed to us to be what we wanted the liturgy to express for us.

How to do it? Balloons wouldn't make it, for us. Neither would a birthday cake. We thought and we brain-stormed and then we planned. We came up with a ceremony with which we were pleased. It "worked". But of course it wasn't perfect on the first go-round, and so for several years we did some more work on it and fine-tuned it. In the end we created a celebration for Pentecost that really does, for us, express the feast.

It goes like this: the liturgy begins like an ordinary Sunday. Then, just before the reading of the lesson from Acts, one begins to suspect that something is up when several members of the community leave their places and go to stand in various spots around the Church. The reading of the descent of the Spirit on the Apostles in the Upper Room begins as usual , but when the story gets to the point where "they began to speak in other tongues" a whisper, a murmur, comes from around the Church. It sounds something like the "rushing wind" of the Biblical account, and it's composed of those stationed around the church quietly reading the story in different languages, as the reader at the lectern continues the story. This murmur of sound continues to accompany the reading until the end. This year we had the reading in Latin, Greek, German, Spanish and Italian. In some years we have had more exotic choices, like Walloon, Finnish, Ga and Fanti, but this is what we had available this year. It's quite an experience. Even though I know what's coming, and often enough I'm reading one of the alternate languages, it still gives me goose bumps and makes my hair stand on end. This imitation of the event of the coming of the Holy Spirit is quite amazing. It is the sound of mystery.

Then we go to a large glass bowl in the center of the Church, which is filled with olive oil. We bless the oil, recalling the Biblical use of anointing to convey the presence of the Holy Spirit, and ask God that we may be "drawn to your heart, transformed by your love, and sent forth to your world as signs of your kingdom." When the blessing is complete we all anoint each other. Someone puts his finger in the oil and traces a cross on my forehead and says: "Bede, may God's spirit live in you." And then I turn to the person behind me and anoint them and so it spreads through the congregation, each of us being "ordained" once again, to have the risen life of Christ and to live it in the world.

Then we float seven wicks, or sometimes seven candles, in the oil, and one of us goes to the Paschal Candle, which has burned since Easter as a symbol of the resurrection life of Christ, and brings flame from that candle and we light the seven candles, naming each one for one of the traditional gifts of the Holy Spirit -

the spirit of wisdom,
the spirit of understanding,
the spirit of counsel,
the spirit of might,
the spirit of knowledge,
the spirit of the fear of the Lord,
the spirit of love.

And while we are doing this, in the background - usually quite unnoticed - one of the monks puts out the Paschal Candle. When the seven lights are lit and we look around again that massive candle stands in our midst unlit. Easter is at an end. The gift has passed to us - we are now the paschal candle, the gift of Christ's life to the world. The seven lights burn through the day, until Vespers closes the Feast, and with it, the season of Easter. It's now up to us to keep that light burning in this world.

There is a special Eucharistic Prayer for this day, with which the sacramental bread and wine are consecrated. It recalls how the Spirit has been experienced throughout the history of our people - Jewish and Christian - and asks for the power of that Spirit for all of us. And so we end our worship, renewed and sent forth again into the "Ordinary Time" of the days and weeks after Pentecost.

It's a great celebration of this day, and a real renewal of our call to minister Christ's life to this world. It's a privilege to live this feast with this community.

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