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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