There’s nothing quite like Christmas Eve here at St. James. I look forward to it all year.
Over the past ten years serving here at St. James, I have witnessed many changes to the way we do those Christmas Eve services. But my very favorite part has not changed. I love the part of the later two services at night when everyone is given a candle and we turn off all the lights and sing Silent Night together by candlelight. You should see it from up here. It’s like ocean waves of candle-lit faces softly singing together and it is beautiful.
But that does not mean it’s easy to pull off. There are logistical issues around any liturgy with that many people and that many moving parts. Part of the challenge is that Christmas Eve is a service we only do once a year so there is no habit or routine to fall back on. There are also many visitors on Christmas Eve who are not used to all of our Episcopal aerobics: the bowing, kneeling, standing—flip to this page, now to this page. Say your part. Now you say your part. Just getting all those candles lit before we dim the lights for Silent Night is no small feat, but we are Episcopalians and that means we have a plan.
So our plan is that we ask the acolytes and altar servers to go down the main aisle of the Nave and light the candle of the person on the end of the pew and then go to the next row and do the same and on and on. That way the person on the end can turn and light the candle of the next person on the row and that person can light the next person’s candle until all of the candles are lit. That sounds very efficient and orderly, right?
Quite a few years ago we had an eager acolyte who just got caught up in the Christmas spirit and forgot the plan. (By the way, I have her permission to share this story.) Instead of going down the main aisle and lighting only the candle of the person on the end, she just started going around and lighting everyone’s candle. It is church, after all, and we’re supposed to share the light of Christ. That is what she was doing. That was also the moment that the wheels came off our plan because that’s what everyone started doing. People started leaving their pews and going around lighting candles. People who were eager to get their candles lit started leaving their spots and crossing the aisle to find someone with a lit candle. The visitors just assumed that was what they were supposed to do because that was what everyone else was doing. It looked like that part of the service when we pass the peace, except with fire; lots of fire.
I was standing next to Father Joel back here watching all of this unfold. I always envied how he could keep a straight face. I have no poker face. I openly wear every emotion on my face and sometimes that gets me in trouble, but I could always tell when something really cracked Father Joel up because his chasuble would be shaking with laughter. His chasuble was shaking that night. As we watched dancing flames leap from one hand and pew to another it was something to behold. I know this is not going to sound very Episcopalian when I say this, but there was actually something wonderful and holy about the chaos of it all. I remember squinting and looking at the scene and I turned to Father Joel and said, “This isn’t Christmas. It’s Pentecost!”
It wasn’t just the tongues of fire from the candles moving wildly all over the place that reminded me of Pentecost. It was the unscripted generosity that was taking place in those few minutes. Everyone was spontaneously just trying to light each other’s candles. It was messy and it was beautiful.
Pentecost isn’t just about noise or flames or tongues. That’s the shiny, colorful wrapping paper, not the gift itself. If we only focus on the fireworks of Pentecost, we miss the point. Pentecost is about generosity. It’s about the largeness of God’s heart. When God gives the promised Holy Spirit, God does so in a big way because God is an exuberant giver.
In our reading from Acts 2, we hear St. Peter tell the crowd that this is all part of an ancient promise made by God and communicated through the prophet Joel:
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that 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. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
Peter says that time has arrived. God is pouring out the Spirit on ALL flesh!
Prior to this moment the Scriptures seemed to talk about God’s Spirit in very guarded terms. We really only hear about the Spirit resting upon a select few people: prophets, priests, kings, deliverers—people empowered by God to carry out a special task or role.
On Pentecost the language about the Spirit switches from scarcity to abundance. The image is not an eyedropper carefully meting out the Spirit only to a certain few people. It’s the language of a bucket being lavishly poured out and sloshing everyone—every known category of people—young, old, men, women, slave and free.
Pentecost pulls back the curtain on the heart of God and what it reveals is that the generosity of God is vast and beyond expectation. That’s the good news of Pentecost. That’s also the great challenge of Pentecost once the implications start to sink in and we realize that all flesh really means all flesh. That includes “those people.” We all have our own lists of “those people” don’t we?
God, maybe that’s a little too generous and a little too much. Maybe you could be a little more careful in your pouring?
You know those commercials on television and on the radio that spend about 95% of their time promising big things but then in the last 5% they speed through lists of possible side effects, limitations and exclusions? They are sort of the broadcast version of the old saying, “The big print giveth and the small print taketh away.”
Sometimes it feels like Pentecost was the big print, but the history of the church has often been that 5% fine print of trying to walk it all back by tacking on terms, limits and exclusions. “That’s not what God meant. Let’s be sensible here. It doesn’t include those people. Not under these circumstances. Certain terms and restrictions apply.”
My sisters and brothers, there is no fine print to Pentecost. There are no words of limitation or exclusion. just the sound of a mighty rushing wind that cannot be diminished or directed. I used to think people were exaggerating when they described the sound of tornadoes and hurricanes arriving like a freight train approaching. That was until I lived through one. It sounds just like a train coming down the street and it will make you feel small. It sounds like a force of nature beyond our control and our ability to contain.
No matter how much we try to tame it, Pentecost is about a God whose generosity is beyond our control. Maybe that’s what frightens us about it sometimes. Sometimes we might prefer a God who is a little more restrained and predictable. A God who is a little more respectful of our rules and our precious interpretations of the Scripture.
But we don’t get to create God in our own image. Some of the very first words in the book of Genesis tell us that it works the other way around.
The message of Pentecost is that we are most like God when we exuberantly pour out love and generously give of ourselves. We are the least like God when we’re stingy and we look for excuses to put limitations on our love.
When we look for ways to exclude people and silence their voices we have surely strayed far from Pentecost where God turned all flesh into prophets and everyone was heard and understood despite their different languages.
Let me take this one step farther. There’s a lot of pain and anguish in our country today. There are many voices speaking hard truths that we might not want to hear because what they have to say might make us uncomfortable. Don’t be quick to tune out those voices just because they are coming from a different place than you might be familiar with. Pentecost means the Spirit speaks through people who don’t look like me, talk like me or share my same life experiences.
All flesh means all flesh. It does not matter where you are from. Your age, race, gender or sexual orientation are irrelevant to the self-giving love of God. If you have ever been made to feel like you are not worthy of serving God or that somehow your voice does not count, please know this: Pentecost says otherwise! The Spirit is for all flesh now, not just a select few. You don’t need a collar or a stole to somehow have more of the Holy Spirit. In the waters of baptism we have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and you have all the Holy Spirit you need to make the difference in this world that God is calling you to make.
Pentecost is an invitation for all of us to open our hearts, to widen our understanding. It’s an invitation to be generous because our God is generous.
What if the very definition of being Pentecostal has less to do with speaking in tongues or wearing red and more to do with generously listening to what the Spirit is saying through the lives of people we could not understand before?
What if the greatest sign and wonder of the Holy Spirit being at work is when we open ourselves to new patterns of sharing and new ways to receive?
What if Pentecost looks like a bunch of people on Christmas Eve crossing the aisle to try to light each other’s candles?