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Was Pentecost the birthday of the Church?

Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, but is that correct?

Pentecost Sunday is one of the movable feasts in the Church calendar. This is because it depends on the date of Easter. In the Church calendar it falls seven Sundays or 50 days after Easter Sunday. 

Pentecost is traditionally known as Whitsun. This comes from the term White Sunday, because historically people wore white gowns on Pentecost. In some countries they still do. 

The day after Whitsun was Whit Monday. Bank Holidays were introduced into the United Kingdom by the Bank Holiday Act 1871, and Whit Monday was one of the first British Bank Holidays. On this day, in many places around Britain, it was the custom that Sunday Schools went on parades carrying banners through the towns and villages and finished with a big party. It was a time when all the churches of different traditions would come together for a big party, because Pentecost was considered the birthday party for the Church. In 1971, the British government reviewed the 1871 Bank Holiday Act on its 100th anniversary. It was then decided to fix Whit Monday Bank Holiday as the last Monday in May. Whit Monday became Late May or Spring Bank Holiday, which falls on Whit Monday some years, but not every year. 

Pentecost is actually the Greek term for the Jewish holiday Shavuot. In the Jewish calendar Passover was followed by Shavuot, which was called the Feast of Weeks, and it was the Harvest Festival for the first fruits of the wheat harvest in the Holy Land. The Feast of Weeks was seven weeks. The Hebrew words for seven and week are related, so it was a week of weeks or 49 days. The Sabbath following a week of weeks is the 50th day, as explained in Leviticus 23.15–16. The New Testament was written in Greek and the Greek for 50th is Πεντηκοστή (Pentēkostē), hence Pentecost. 

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples. Peter stood up and preached, telling the story of Jesus to the crowds. That Harvest Festival was the first fruits of the great harvest of souls. According to Acts 2.41, ‘about three thousand were added to their number that day’. These people were Jews of the diaspora, and some Gentile converts to Judaism. They returned to their homelands and synagogues with the Gospel message. According to the list in Acts 2.9–11the people returned to their places of origin in what is today Greece and Italy in Europe; the Holy Land, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Arabia in the Middle East; as well as Egypt and Libya in Africa. Sometimes Jews also come from further afield as well. A bit later we also read in Acts 8.27 of the Ethiopian eunuch who came to Jerusalem to worship. In fact these are the geographical areas where the Early Church was strongest.

In 1904 when the Welsh Revival occurred and similar things happened like at the first Pentecost it was known as the Pentecostal movement, which today is a worldwide form of Christianity.

In March 2012 the National Geographic did a special issue called ‘In the Footsteps of the Apostles’ which said, ‘They were unlikely leaders. As the Bible tells it, most knew more about mending nets than winning converts when Jesus said he would make them “fishers of men”. Yet 2,000 years later, all over the world, the Apostles are still drawing people in.’

A birthday is an anniversary of your birth. Your first birthday is held a year after your birth day. So Pentecost was not the birthday, but the birth day of the Church. If you want to know what happened next, read the book of Acts.

Author: Neil Rees, 20 May 2021

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