Archive for the ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Tag

Whit Sunday (Seven Weeks after Easter Sunday)   1 comment

English: A Protestant Church altar decorated f...
English: A Protestant Church altar decorated for Pentecost with red burning candles and red banners and altar cloth depicting the fire and sound of blowing wind of the Holy Spirit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.   (Gerard Manley Hopkins)   Of the three major festivals in the Christian calendar, Whitsun is perhaps the least celebrated by people in Britain, certainly as a ‘folk’ festival, though it has become more important recently with the growth of the charismatic movement in churches. The coming of the Holy Spirit to revitalise the apostles and, through them, the whole church, is more difficult to picture, especially for children, than the events of Christmas and Easter week. In English culture, at least, Whitsun was upstaged by May Day. It is no longer merits a general ‘bank’ holiday in its own right in Britain, for the Monday following, though there is a late Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May, which may or may not coincide. In 2012, this holiday was postponed to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the 2nd-5th June, to allow for a long weekend. In parts of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, ‘Ladies go Dancing at Whitsun’ still, as the song has it. The white clothes worn in these secular activities, as well as in churches for baptisms and confirmations, is the origin of the name in English, though other cultures use the original Greek name for the Hebrew festival of the fiftieth day after Passover, ‘Pentecost‘.

After the events of Easter Day, the disciples of Jesus were comforted and encouraged for forty days by his appearances before them. They were still looking for Christ’s kingdom to come and needed the presence of the King. However, Jesus told them that it was not for them to know how this kingdom would be achieved, but he would always be with them and they would be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Then, forty days after his Resurrection, he went from their sight in the event which is commemorated by the Church on Ascension Day. Ten days later the apostles (now made up to twelve by the appointment of Matthias as treasurer, replacing Judas Iscariot) came together to celebrate Pentecost. As they talked, fearful of what might happen to them, a power came over them, in a moment of time, which they all experienced, and which, sweeping away their fears, emboldened them to go out to the crowds and to preach the gospel in such a way that all the pilgrims , gathered in Jerusalem from many lands and speaking many languages, could understand their enthusiastic message. Although, like Jesus, the disciples would have spoken a little Greek as well as their own colloquial Aramaic, and may have been able to read and write in Hebrew, they could not possibly, as uneducated Galileans, have learnt so many languages, especially the Persian and Asian languages. Even the fifty days they had been quietly preparing for their ministry would not have been long enough to learn the range of tongues required to preach confidently in each. The tongues of fire which ‘spread out and touched each person there’ remind one of the ‘dragon’s tongue’ symbol of the Welsh language Society.

They were so enthusiastic that the more cynical onlookers made fun of them, suggesting that they’d been drinking wine at breakfast, as it was only just nine o’ clock. This was how the missionary work of the Church began, bringing death in many cruel forms to some of the twelve, and many others.   Today, most Whitsun ceremonies, derived from the Saxon ‘Hirita Surnondseg’ customs, have little reference to the first Whitsun described in the Acts of the Apostles  (chapter 2), and many of them are pagan in origin, although the Church has given them Christian significance. The pagan cult of well worship and veneration of water spirits was one of the most difficult traditions to transform. To this day, in most European cultures, the custom of throwing coins into a fountain or ‘wishing well’ is still a common practice and a good way of charities gaining income. Wells and spas are still a feature of many towns in Britain, with England’s smallest city named after the several natural springs which surface there, near the Cathedral. Bath, a world heritage centre, has been an important Spa since Roman times, of course, and place-names like Royal Leamington Spa and Llandrindod Wells are part of the revival of water-treatments in Georgian times.

The most colourful ceremony which continues in contemporary celebrations at Ascentiontide and Whitsuntide is Well Dressing, very popular in the north Midlands, or Peak District. This has become an art form in its own right with origins in the Dark Ages and floral pictures up to ten feet (3m) in height are set up at springs and well-heads. Tissington, Buxton and Wirksworth in Derbyshire, are noted for the beauty of their well dressings. The scenes depicted are biblical, constructed entirely from natural materials, pebbles, flowers and petals, leaves, moss, and crystal rocks. At Tissington, after morning prayers, the clergy and choir process around five local wells, blessing each one. The Whitsun Ale was a sort of parish ‘carousel’ vaguely linked to the ‘Agapae’ or Love Feasts of the early Church when the rich ate with the poor and shared their food. The churchwardens arranged the event and provided the beer which was sold, with all profits going to the poor. The ‘Church Ale’ led to village benefit clubs of the nineteenth century which did more to benefit the hierarchical control of squire and parson, than they benefited the poor, and were replaced by ‘friendly’ and co-operative societies.   More than anything, Whitsun, now Spring Bank Holiday,  is the time for Morris-Dancers to emerge, and the popularity of this tradition, encouraged in the 1960s by the English Folk Dance Society, remains widespread throughout England and Wales. The ‘Morris’ is the English version of the ‘Morisca’ or ‘Moorish’ Dance which began as a ritualistic form of battle mime, brought back to England by the Crusaders. As in other European cultures throughout May, floral decorations like the ‘Kissing Bower’ are still made by children in some villages. These are two intertwined circular arches of wild flowers, which are carried from house to house. These customs were not always popular with clergymen, however, who would perhaps have been more positive about the cycles of mystery plays performed at Whitsuntide outside the Cathedrals at Chester, Wakefield and Coventry. These were presented as ‘pageants’ on moving stages which processed around the town, which meant that the biblical scene for a particular festival was presented several times by the chosen trade guild for that scene, as the audiences watched on at different points around the city. Freed from the direct control of the Church, they contained sometimes bawdy dramatic effects, or ‘slapstick’ humour, written into lively, colloquial scripts. It would be interesting to know what special effects they could produce both for the Ascension and Pentecost stories.   Which brings us back to where we came in. Children can understand the idea of the Holy Spirit as a conscience, or counsellor, as well as a comforter or helper, as in the picture and text below. And both children and adults can understand Paul’s teaching on the ‘fruits of the spirit’; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost may have been dramatic, but its continuing charisma is manifested in the ordinary, everyday lives of Christians who follow its promptings and reveal its power in the way they live out these values and qualities of Love Divine.

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