Tag Archives: spirit

Whitsun: what is this festival anyway?

What is Whitsun? Why is it Important?

Whitsun is a shortened version of Whit Sunday which may derive from White Sunday or from Whit as in wit, wisdom, or both. This name is used in countries with Anglican religious heritage or connections. Whitsun is the seventh Sunday after Easter. It is another name for Pentecost which is the fiftieth day after Passover (the Saturday before Easter, or at least it was supposed to be but differences between the Gregorian, the Julian, and the Hebrew calendars cause Western Easter, Eastern Easter, and Passover to often unalign.) Another way to describe this is that Ascension Thursday happens 40 days after Easter and Whitsun/Pentecost ten days later. While Christmas is a fixed holiday, Whitsun/Pentecost is “movable” as it falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon that follows the spring equinox. The early Christians tried to establish Easter as a cosmic event with Christmas as an earthly event.  Pentecost is the Greek name for Shavuot, a prominent feast of ancient Israel that celebrated Moses receiving the Law on Sinai. Perhaps the name Whitsun, or Whitsunday, was an attempt to distance or distinguish this Christian festival from the Jewish one.

Whitsun and Ascension go together. The time from Easter to Ascension is a time of intense teaching from Christ to the disciples. All present were initiated into the deep Mysteries of Golgotha.  Then comes the proving of the training – ten days alone (or becoming all-one).

The festival of Whitsun commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples. This is described in Acts 2:1-4, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all together in one self [place is often used]. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong rushing wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”

Normally our mental image is tongues of fire on the 12 disciples but note this 6th century Rabbula Gospels from Syria (now in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy). It shows Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle. Thus present, in one self, were more than just the 12. Some traditions claim as many as 120 were present as one.

To understand Whitsun/Pentecost, we need to understand what is here called the Holy Spirit. There are two mentions in the bible of descents of the holy spirit. The first is [John 1:32-34] at the baptism of Jesus,  “Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit descend down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” The second ‘descent’ is Acts 2:1-4 as quoted above. I bolded the words “and remain” to emphasize that this spirit was not in Jesus of Nazareth until this moment of baptism. Theologians often miss this important point.

‘Spirit’ is mentioned in other passages, notably John 19:30, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit [pneuma, πνεῦμα].” Pneuma is the same word for wind in Greek, not the moving air but what moves the air. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states that pneuma also means “breath as in the nostrils or mouth, often in Greek writings from Aeschylus down.” Now read Genesis 2:7 (ASV) “And Jehovah God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” And in John 1:4 “In Him is life [zoe, ζωὴ] and that life is the light of mankind.” “Him” is the Word, the Logos. When a human being speaks a word, they must use their breath. Breath is of the airy element in which light can freely exist. Note the strong association of the Word with life, zoe. Much more could be said on this tangent.

How are these two descents of the Holy Spirit alike and how are they different?

Let’s start with the day of the Ascension. Gazing upwards, the disciples of Christ Jesus  see Christ vanishing in the clouds. The usual conception of this scene is that Christ went up into heaven and so departed from the earth leaving not only the disciples to their own resources but the rest of mankind as well. This feels like a spiritual reneging on the promise of Easter! Did not Christ, through His deed on Golgotha, resolve to unite His own Being with the earth, that is to say, from the Mystery of Golgotha onwards to remain forever connected with earth-evolution?

Next, ten days after this Ascension, tongues of fire descend upon the heads of all of those assembled as “one self” so that they are inspired “to speak with other tongues.” What this actually means is that from this moment forward those gathered were able to impart the secrets learned from their time with the resurrected Christ, of the Mystery of Golgotha, to the heart of every human being, irrespective of race, gender, religion, or ethnicity. This was a cosmic deed accomplished for the whole of humanity.

Christ fulfilled his deed for all mankind on Golgotha. But now mankind must come to grasp this deed. The permeation of the human spirit-and-soul with the power to understand the Mystery of Golgotha is the sending of the Holy Spirit. This is the picture of the Whitsun festival, the festival of Pentecost.

Christ sent the Spirit after ten days of working on their own so that the individual being of spirit-and-soul may have access to the effects of The Deed that was accomplished for all men in common. Through the Spirit man must learn to experience the Christ Mystery inwardly, in spirit and in soul. The Holy Spirit is available to each human individual in order that he or she may be able to understand this cosmic Deed.

Looking a bit deeper (there are always more depths!), we can come to see that the Ascension tells us: The Deed on Golgotha was fulfilled for the physical body and the etheric body in the universal human sense while Whitsun tells us: The single human being must make this Deed bear fruit in himself by receiving the Holy Spirit. Thereby the universal Christ Impulse becomes individual in each human being.

Materialism and Christianity

Easter was THE important Christian festival. St. Paul said, “If Christ be not risen, then is your faith vain.” A key purpose to the Council of Nicaea was to set the date of Easter (as calendars in those days had insufficient leap years to prevent the spring equinox from sliding in March towards February). The festival of the birth of Jesus was not at all celebrated. Christians felt that Jesus (both of Matthew’s gospel and of Luke’s) was born as a man and Christ entered this body at the baptism. As full of mystery as birth and baptism may be, for early Christians the important new mystery was what happened from Golgotha to the grave to the resurrection.  With the early Christians, we do not find symbols of the suffering of Christ; rather we find their focus is on the resurrection.

Later, after 325 when the Council of Nicaea took place, materialism began to set in; even Christianity succumbed. The symbolic emphasis moved to the suffering Christ on the crucifix, to the bodily suffering of Christ. The crucifix is the expression of the transition to materialism taking root in Christianity. Spiritual reality is expelled by materialism. This comes to full reality with the 8th Ecumenical Council (Fourth in Constantinople). Here, by majority vote of the bishops, 27 canons were passed. The eleventh canon states “Though the Old and New Testaments teach that a man or woman has one rational and intellectual soul [compare to Aristotle], and all the fathers and doctors of the church, who are spokesmen of God, express the same opinion, some have descended to such a depth of irreligion, through paying attention to the speculations of evil people, that they shamelessly teach as a dogma that a human being has two souls, and keep trying to prove their heresy by irrational means, using a wisdom that has been made foolishness. Therefore this holy and universal synod is hastening to uproot this wicked theory now growing like some loathsome form of weed. Carrying in its hand the winnowing fork of truth, with the intention of consigning all the chaff to inextinguishable fire, and making clean the threshing floor of Christ, in ringing tones it declares anathema the inventors and perpetrators of such impiety and all those holding similar views; it also declares and promulgates that nobody at all should hold or preserve in any way the written teaching of the authors of this impiety. If however anyone presumes to act in a way contrary to this holy and great synod, let him be anathema and an outcast from the faith and way of life of Christians.”Diagram of body soul spirit

Photius, who is revered as a saint in the Eastern Church but despised in the West, had argued that Aristotle indicated that each person has two aspects to their soul, one aspect focuses on the senses of the physical body and is thereby liable to error while another aspect focuses on the spiritual and is thus immune to error. With this decree, however, the human was reduced; no longer body, soul, and spirit, but now only body and (one) soul. One could be excommunicated from Christ’s Church for stating anything differently. When Christianity reaches the twentieth century, few theologians use or understand the term ‘soul’ anymore. Materialism reigns supreme.

Following this Ecumenical Council, the Eucharist was altered. Only the ‘prepared’ priests could receive the wine while all received just the body, the bread. For the congregation, this meant only the body matters. The troubadours then come to this drama to sing about the search for the Holy Grail. Where has the blood of Christ gone? Spirit triumphant over death, over the physical fades away replaced by portrayals the pain-racked soul of Jesus. Who guards and sustains mankind? Replacing the Triumphant Son of Man is the Man of Sorrows.

The Knights Templars dash onto this scene two hundred years later. In their initiation ceremony, one was led to understand why they rejected the crucifix as a symbol of their Christianity. Supposedly, during the initiation process, the elect was to spit on a cross that had an image of the suffering savior.

Western culture where materialism is most deeply rooted must find a renewal of the Easter experience. The renewed Easter thought should lead one to be lifted into the Spirit.  Christ then becomes ‘visible’ as a super-sensible, super-earthly Being who entered into the stream of earthly evolution.

At the tomb that is the body, do we see only the stone? When we enter the tomb (Oh Man, Know Thou Thyself — Delphi) can we see the Kingdom within? Will we find “The One you seek is not here” or will we find “The One Who is here now,” the one Who from the spirit calls you to your spirit-awakening.

“In this Easter mood we shall also be able to find the strength with which our will must be imbued if the forces of decline are to be countered by those which lead humanity upwards. We need the forces that can bring about this ascent. And the moment we truly understand the Easter thought of Resurrection, this Easter thought — bringing warmth and illumination — will kindle within us the forces needed for the future evolution of mankind. Easter must become an inner festival, a festival in which we celebrate in ourselves the victory of the Spirit over the body. But we need the Christ for Whom we can seek in our inmost being, because when we truly seek Him, He at once appears.” — Rudolf Steiner,The Festivals and Their Meaning II, Lecture 4, March 27, 1921.

Skip to toolbar