+ ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.’
Considering the remarkably cold spring that has followed this year’s early Easter, I imagine that Easter must have fallen rather later in the year when Philip Larkin wrote his poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. For heat is one of the recurrent themes of Larkin’s account of that train journey; not the gentle warmth of the last week, but a full-blown heat-wave. The heat of the train itself – ‘all windows down, all cushions hot’ and of the Lincolnshire landscape through which they travelled: ‘the tall heat that slept for miles inland.’ Whitsun, White Sunday, is the late Old English name for this, the seventh Sunday after Easter, the fiftieth day after Easter Day, which is what the Greco-Latin name Pentecost means. One of the major feasts of the Christian year, celebrating the occasion described in our second reading from Acts, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, today represents both an end and a beginning. Pentecost marks the end of the Easter season, the period when the risen Christ remained among his disciples; it is a moment of leaving behind what is past (most vividly reflected in Christ’s physical departure from the world and his ascension into heaven). But this feast also launches something new: it marks the formal initiation of the Church’s mission to the world. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father and he will give you another advocate to be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth. (John 14.15-17). This gift of the Spirit is the fulfilment of that promise Jesus made to his disciples: ‘I will not leave you comfortless’.
In his narrative in the book of Acts, Luke located the gift of the Spirit as coming on the day of the Jewish festival, the Feast of Weeks, when the first fruits of the corn-harvest were presented and Moses’ giving of the Law commemorated, a festival which fell fifty days after Passover. ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind … Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ We might recall here John the Baptist’s prophesy as recorded in Luke (3:16) that Jesus would baptize with ‘the Holy Spirit and with fire’. Because of its direct association with new life, in the Early Church the feast of Pentecost was the other time of the year as well as Easter Eve at which catechumens (new converts to the faith) might be baptized. The English name, Whitsun, probably derives from the white clothes the newly baptized used to wear for the eight days after their baptism. In the Middle Ages, Pentecost was thought a suitably solemn date for royal coronations; the royal anointing of the king in that ceremony acting as an outward sign of the reception of the Holy Spirit. The newly-crowned king would thus be rendered both Christ-like and a vessel of God. Pentecost, or Whitsun weekend is also a popular occasion for weddings, as Larkin came to realise on his train journey south; for though,
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at:
Gradually, his train filled up with newly-wed couples:
A dozen marriages got under way
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side …
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
Larkin’s poem is about the transition that marriage makes, entirely appropriately for this season characterised by change, when the gift of the Holy Spirit effects its transformation upon each of us.
The gift of tongues given to the disciples, which Luke here interpreted as the ability to speak in different languages, but which Paul tended to explain as the uttering of incomprehensible babble, baffled the crowd who witnessed it. Some of the sceptical present wondered if the disciples were drunk, just as –were this event to occur in a contemporary context – we might wonder if the Apostles’ ecstasy were chemically rather than spiritually induced. But Peter’s speech which we just heard explains that it is not that the disciples are out of their minds, rather than the prophesy of Joel is being fulfilled. And then he repeats much of the text of our first reading from the book of Joel, ‘‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams.’
Quite when the Old Testament prophet Joel was writing is unclear; what is obvious from his own text is that he wrote in response to a devastating invasion of locusts which swarmed over all the crops of the fields but also over all the people in their houses. He interpreted this plague as a sign of judgement of the Lord and urged the need for the Israelites to repent, and throw themselves on the mercy of God. From the passage we heard read, that petition seems to have been successful, for God has sent the autumn rains, and as the newly-planted crop sprouts, the hope is offered of full granaries once more, repaying what have clearly been years of famine. Yet, then at the end the prophet moves into eschatological mode; he starts talking explicitly of the last things: ‘Then afterward, I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.’ The young will prophesy and see visions, old men will dream dreams and God will show portents on heaven and earth, turning the sun to darkness and the moon to blood, all prefiguring the coming of the terrible day of the Lord. There will be those who escape – specifically those who call on the name of the Lord – but the portents for Joel are, none-the-less predominantly forecasts of destruction and death. Yet on Peter’s lips, as we heard in the passage from Acts, these become a declaration of new life. Note how Joel’s ‘then afterward’, became on Peter’s lips ‘In the last days’. For Peter the wonders that Joel prophesied were fulfilled in the life and deeds of Jesus’ ministry on earth; what is being prefigured now is the second coming with its latent promise of the redemption of humankind.
‘Your young men shall see visions and your old men shall dream dreams’. This vividly evocative passage reminds us of the limitless possibilities available to the young. Whether you are sitting here trying not to agonise about the imminence of finals, or whether the prospect even of applying to university still seems a long way off, you all have this essential thing in common: the possibilities of what you might do, what you could achieve, how you might harness your own gifts and talents lies before you. You may not exactly have visions about your future – perhaps you think visions are things visited only on people in the past, people like the fourteenth-century spiritual writer Julian of Norwich, whose feast we celebrated on Thursday last week – but you can all identify with Vision. Boris Johnson successfully persuaded voters that he had a fresh ‘Vision for London’ to re-invigorate the capital. Poor old Gordon Brown suffers at the moment not least because it is David Cameron, not he whom the media believe to have the ‘vision thing’. Perhaps this is in part about age; visions are for the young, those with their futures still stretching before them. Your minds are – or should be – filled with visions, aspirational images of the various potential futures open to you, in public and private arenas. Everything is possible as you stand on the threshold of adult life. For those of you who are about to take finals this is, just like Pentecost, both an ending and a new beginning. You are leaving behind that which is past and launching forward into something that may now be starting to be revealed, or perhaps its precise form still remains entirely unclear. Even though the ultimate fulfilment of your visions is yet to be realised, the promise and hope you can, and should have in the future are clear. Whatever you do, even if in the first instance you return to studying, that too will represent a new beginning and open new vistas of opportunity. Adapting the words of tonight’s anthem: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because he hath anointed you to … preach the acceptable year of the Lord’.
But for the old, such visions are past. ‘Your young men shall have visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.’ The old have their memories, they can dream about their own youthful visions and reflect on their past glories, but their futures are narrower, less fluid, more closed as the reality of the imminence of mortality can less and less be ignored. My father, now in his late eighties, says that some days he can scarcely bear to open The Times for fear that it will tell him that yet another one of his contemporaries, and perhaps worse another of his younger friends, has died. Yet old men’s dreams, too, are touched by Pentecostal fire; remember Eliot’s vivid depiction:
a glare that is blindness in early afternoon
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but Pentecostal fire.
That Pentecostal fire touches each of us. And touched, we too are changed. Wherever we stand, on the threshold of adult independence, in middle years, or at the end of life, every year Whitsun takes us back to this pregnant moment in the life of the people of God and the relationship between God and his people: us.
For the gift of the Spirit fulfils Christ’s promise to all of us, his children; it confirms what he told us in his life and in the time he was among his disciples after his resurrection, that his purpose is our redemption, our salvation. The coming of the Spirit shatters expectations; while Christ’s Ascension seemed to bring an end, yet now we have another beginning, a promise of new life: ‘then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’. Pentecost, Whitsun is about that changes which arise from the outpouring of God’s grace and power. The spirit touches all our lives, young and old alike, effecting a transformation from which we cannot emerge unchanged. In ending, I return to my beginning, and to Larkin’s, Whitsun weddings. In his poem the railway journey acts as a metaphor for the journey of life, a journey each of us makes and to which, whatever our life stage, we can all relate. Larkin’s message is about transformation, too:
…………and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.
Professor Sarah Foot, Regius Professor in Ecclesiatical History
11th May 2008