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Pentecost: Feast of enlightenment

This time of year Christians around the world celebrate the high feast of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is known as the ‘feast of the (holy) spirit.’ A wonderful reference, of course, but what is the significance or relevance of a feast like this in a society that is quickly shedding its Christian feathers? Frank Bosman, culture theologian, explains it all.

The story

Let us start with the Pentecost story itself. According to the story, Jesus’ mother and his best friends were sitting together in a backroom somewhere. They were totally disillusioned. Their rabbi preached a new religion of faith, hope and love. He was going to liberate Israel from foreign (Roman) domination. But the whole thing had failed. Roman ruler Pontius Pilate made no bones about executing Jesus as just another rebel in a long line of rebels. Jesus’ friends had scattered like a bunch of chickens, scared of meeting the same fate. Frightened, uncertain and full of shame they are now sitting together, wondering what to do. Some are whispering that Jesus has risen from the dead, some even report apparitions, but most of them do not know yet what to believe.

Set ablaze

On that fiftieth day, as the story goes, the rush of a mighty wind filled the room where they were sitting together. A gale is blowing in their house. And they all see the same inexplicable phenomenon: a great fire touching all of them. The fire does not burn their skins, but sets ablaze their heads and hearts. Gone is the anger, gone are the fear and the uncertainty. They storm out of the house and begin to make a passionate plea to the dumbstruck crowd outside. For believing against one’s better judgment. For hope against oppression. For a love stronger than death.

An intriguing detail of the Pentecost story is that all international tourists ands pilgrims who were there in Jerusalem at that moment could understand the words of Jesus’ friends “in their own language”: Greeks, Romans, Persians, Egyptians, all of them. Possibly the friends ‘simply’ spoke Greek, the English of that era. Or maybe they ‘simply’ spoke Hebrew, which all (Jewish) pilgrims could understand. Or maybe the whole thing went beyond words. Christians speak of “the gift of the holy spirit”, connecting people from all languages, races and nations in the one great story of the Deceased.

Life altering experience

Fine words, you may think. Nice bedtime story to read to kids. Makes a change from Grimm’s fairy tales or Harry Potter. But I believe there is more to it than that.  That day Jesus’ disciples had a life altering experience.  A Buddhist would say they became enlightened. A psychoanalyst would say they awoke from a nightmare. A scientist would mumble they were given a deeper understanding of the world.

Hope

That is the appealing message of Pentecost, also for our times, whether you go to church every week or not. Jesus’ message of faith, hope and love. Faith in a better world. Hope that one day this will become a reality. And love that allows you to hold on to this ideal, in spite of wars, influxes of refugees, and Panama Papers. Faith in the idea that a better world is possible is also the driving force behind science, grounded in the belief that more knowledge of this world benefits all who live on it. There is the hope that this knowledge is within our reach, that it can be gathered step by step. And there is love, which makes the scientist’s joy at the increase of their knowledge benefit society as a whole.      

It is not for nothing that this Spirit is invoked at the start of every academic session at our university. I wish you all a happy Pentecost!

Frank Bosman is a researcher at Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center.