The moment we have been waiting for

by Fr Dan Harding

The author is an Australian Columban who worked in Chile for many years. He is now editor of The Far East, the Columban magazine in Australia and New Zealand.

On 4 June 1770 Captain Cook sailed into a passage through the Great Barrier Reef that was surrounded by beautiful continental islands. He was on his historic voyage of discovery up the east coast of Australia. These islands and the sea passage were named the Whitsunday Islands and Passage after the liturgical celebration of the day, Whitsunday (also known as ‘Whitsunday’ or ‘Whitsun’). Actually Cook had miscalculated his date and it was really the following day, Whit Monday.

Hill Inlet, Whitsunday Islanda the largest of the Whitsunday Islands

What is this liturgical celebration called Whitsunday? It is another name for the second most important day after Easter in the Church’s liturgical calendar - the great Solemnity of Pentecost. The name Whitsunday comes from White Sunday when in Medieval times, those who had been baptized seven weeks earlier at Easter donned again their white baptismal robes. Some baptisms also took place at this time.

Pentecost, El Greco, painted 1596 – 1600. [Web Gallery of Art]

At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and Mary the Mother of Jesus who were waiting in prayer in the Cenacle, the Upper Room, for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. It was here in this Upper Room that the Last Supper had taken place and the Risen Lord had also appeared to his disciples. At one of his appearances, he told them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait there for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

To understand what waiting for the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is all about, I feel it is really important for us to try to get a sense of what it was like to be in the Cenacle with Mary and with the disciples waiting in prayer for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. What was it like waiting with such anticipation, with bated breath? Were their feelings of excitement, of joyful expectation, of patience and faith mixed perhaps with some doubt, some fear, or feelings of personal inadequacy and unworthiness? Now that the Risen Lord had ascended into heaven, how were they, the disciples to go on? Yet, in a very real sense, they had been waiting for that Pentecostal moment all their lives. Waiting to receive the Spirit of the Risen Lord and be transformed and empowered. Something big was about to happen, something very big. Could they sense Him coming? Could they feel it in the air?

Something of this tremendous sense of excitement, of anticipation and of prayerful waiting is captured in the celebrations of Pentecost Vigils on the night before Pentecost Sunday. In Chile where I served many years as a Columban Missionary Priest, almost all parishes organize annual Pentecost Vigils for the youth and other interested parishioners. These Vigils begin after the Saturday night Vigil Eucharist in the parish church and usually continue all night until the Sunday Eucharist of Pentecost the following day.

‘Come, Holy Spirit’, Vigil of Pentecost, Parish of San Pedro Nolasco, Puente Alto, Chile

The areas where our Columban parishes are located in Chile are areas with a high rate of crime, gangs and substance abuse. This is why it is often necessary to hire off-duty policemen to stand guard during these night vigils. Once the vigils start, the gates of the parish are locked for security reasons and no one is allowed to leave or enter the premises until dawn.

That is no one - except the Holy Spirit - is allowed to enter the parish premises. The Holy Spirit is allowed to enter into the church building and into the hearts and the lives of each vigil participant. During the long and usually cold night hours of the Pentecost Vigil, the participants are invited into a deeper conversion and renewal of their lives through opening their lives, their personal and social reality to the Holy Spirit. This is a moment they have been waiting for.

During the Pentecost Vigil, all are invited to repent of sin and to be forgiven and healed through the Sacrament of Reconciliation which is made available to them. They are invited to a personal encounter with the Risen Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit. The participants sing, pray, dance, move about, hold hands, share their ideas together, pour out their hearts to the Lord and to one another, hug each other, meditate on the Word of God, reflect on the Church’s mission to the world and act out dramatically the events of Pentecost according to the Acts of the Apostles.

Veni Creator Spiritus
Come Creator Spirit

During these long night hours of the vigil, the participants also prepare the parish church with decorations for the celebration of the Eucharist the following morning, Pentecost Sunday. These decorations include banners and posters with different images of the Holy Spirit and the Pentecost event such as the dove, tongues of fire, water associated with the action of the Holy Spirit at baptism, the laying on of hands and anointing with holy oils at confirmation and in other sacraments, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the twelve Fruits of the Holy Spirit. As the Church was born at Pentecost, images of the Church are also prepared. These include: a sheep fold; an ark; the Body of Christ; the Heavenly Jerusalem; the New Israel; the People of God; the Spouse of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus gathered in vigil, awaiting His arrival. They first heard the sound of a mighty wind that filled the entire building and then they saw tongues of fire settle upon each person. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages.

I have seen with my own eyes moments during the Pentecost Vigils when the Holy Spirit arrives in the lives of the participants and touches, heals and empowers them. Something is awoken in them to empower and transform them and connect them better to the Body of the Risen Lord, the Church and her mission to build up God’s Kingdom. The Pentecost Vigil awakens in the participants a sense of the mission of the Church to ‘renew the face of the Earth’ by bringing the Kingdom of God to the broken, the dispossessed, the poor, the exploited and the excluded. Pentecost is about receiving and being filled, then stepping up and out, going out, diving in, being stretched, taking risks and moving out of one’s comfort zone. It is about fire, about life in the Spirit. Isn’t this what we have always been waiting for all our lives?