Is Pentecost really the “birthday” of the Church?

I never metaphor I didn’t like…{groan}…but when metaphors go bad, they’re really bad.

Each year we often hear that Pentecost is the “birthday” of the Church. Cardinal Seán’s most recent pastoral letter to the Church of Boston, “A New Pentecost: Inviting All to Follow Jesus” opens with just that image. He says we call it the Church’s birthday because “it is the day the members of Christ’s Church were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to boldly proclaim the Gospel…” Absolutely! But most of the time, the birthday metaphor elicits images of balloons, cake, and streamers rather than the courageous, wild abandoned preaching that made some bystanders accuse the disciples of public drunkeness.

I’m all for birthday parties, like Cody said, but let’s not make the trappings of a children’s party the prevalent image of this solemnity of Pentecost. Like with any good metaphor (and maybe “birthday” isn’t one), we need to explore the many layers of meaning the image holds and connotes. And as with our most important days and seasons, such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, these really are adult celebrations and need more-multifaceted metaphors. (And don’t get me started on desertscapes usurping sanctuaries and baptismal fonts during Lent.) So what might be some more mature and complex ways to explore this “birthday” of the Church?

“Birth” may be a better word than “birthday” — helping to connect this day back to Easter and confirmation back to baptism…as we know, the Holy Spirit comes to us first not at confirmation (as some homilies state) but in the waters of baptism — two sides of the same sacramental coin. “Birth” a deeper image than the chronologically limited sense of “birthday.” How about an image of “emancipation” — from fear, from the womb, from locked rooms, from caring about what others might think, from slavery to sin and death? I personally like the Johannine “Pentecost” of the Church that some biblical scholars note happens at the foot of the Cross, at John 19:30, when Jesus “handed over the spirit,” which is then followed by the flow of blood and water at verse 34 — our three initiation sacraments coming directly from the Cross.

We certainly have a need for more accessible metaphors, especially for our younger members. But let’s not shy away from deeper images, even for our children. In the meantime, I’ve got my party hat on and am in search of cake.

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13 comments

  1. The birth of the Church: scene one — blood and water flow from the side of Christ. His death gives birth to us.

    Scene 2: the Risen Christ breathes on the Apostles — just as God breathed the breath of life into Adam.

    Scene 3 (shift now from John to Luke): the Spirit is poured out on a gathered assembly both individually and collectively: and the Church is born.

  2. A word like “founding” doesn’t capture the theological aspects of Pentecost quite the way that “birth” does to be sure. The problem is that “Birth-day” is already an image loaded term in English, and we don’t say “Anniversary of Birth” so we’re stuck with a forced image. Whenever I hear a priest announce “Today is the birthday of the Church”, I can’t help but think how puerile it sounds and how I wish we could say something else more fitting.

  3. As a novice in 1970, remember that, in our first fervor, we went on and on about Pentecost and birthday. Years later, realized that it is Easter, Resurrrection that gave us the church – like what Joe said above.

  4. Acts 11:15 “As I began to speak, the holy Spirit fell upon them as it had upon us at the beginning.” The apostles considered the “beginning”, not when they were called by Jesus, not when He was crucified, not when He was resurrected from the dead, not when He ascended into heaven: but when the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost.

    Birth or birthday, but Pentecost was certainly viewed by the Apostles as the beginning of the Church.

  5. But isn’t the Body of Christ the Church, so the Feast of the Nativity would be a proper “birthday”, yes?
    Easter isn’t a bad choice, as long as it refers to that whole Thu-Sun event.
    Further, about Acts, it’s not until chapter 11 that the disciples are first called Christians, thus denoting a development of the Church out of the synagogue with the firm turn toward the Gentile mission.

    1. Actually, the Incarnation occurred at the Annunciation…which the Church traditionally tied to a notional Paschal date.

  6. Well the rather gradual and groping emergence of church from synagogue that you suggest is not impossible, but putting the Church back to the birth of Christ loses the reference to the concrete phenomenon; you might as well put it back to the mind of God in eternity. Luke 2 is probably an imaginative glorification of what the Church as its best was — its self-discovery among the gentile nations.

    1. Fr. Joe, by “Luke 2” do you mean “Luke Part 2”, i.e. Acts?

      Or are you referring to scenes in chapter 2 of Luke like the presentation of Jesus in the Temple where Simeon mentions “a light for revelation to the Gentiles”? I’m just not sure I understand how chapter 2 of Luke has to do with the “self-discovery [of the Church] among the gentile nations”…

  7. The Church in the mind of God for all eternity sounds good to me and the seeds or conception of the Church in a zygotic sort of way could be traced to the call of Abraham and the forming of the 12 tribes of Israel being in a gestation period culminating with the incarnation, birth, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus that then brings the Church to be “birthed” by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost–still primitive at that moment but poised to grow and develop to this day and until the Lord returns.

  8. The very use of the word “church” is part of the problem here. The English word has far too few of the connotations of the Greek “ekklesia” and far too many associations with institution, feudal hierarchy, buildings, funding, etc.

    There is too much of a tendency of those employed by the institution to seek ways to raise its status.

    There is sometimes a not so subtle sub-text or even direct advocacy in Pentecost sermons of loyalty to the institution and its current management.

    People of God called into assembly [ekklesia], ministry of the ordained to all the baptized get lost in these sorts of sermons.

    There is no Scriptural basis for the institutions of the church. The institutions are all human developments. The Scriptures tell us of a community and compare it to the body of Jesus and to the Israelites as the people of God.

  9. The author’s post rests on an assumption that “birthday” mostly conjures up “images of balloons, cake, and streamers” — images that blur what we’re called to celebrate on Pentecost. If one takes the term “mostly” to mean “more than half”, then perhaps she is right; however, for many people — especially adults, birthdays are not a time for balloons, cake, and streamers. Instead, birthdays are a time of reflection, a time of loss, a time of contemplative joy, or a time of pain.

    My point here is to state simply that the “birthday” metaphor may resonate quite deeply for some people, and serve to connect them to the theological richness of Pentecost and what the Spirit demands of us in our lives. Obviously, sound preaching is needed for this connection to be made.

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