Getting Ready for Pentecost
Tying up some loose ends on my desk, I came across some notes on a 12th century Greek manuscript of the Four Gospels, what is now called Minuscule 543. Today the manuscript is in the University of Michigan library. This manuscript has written in, somewhat haphazardly, the lectionary marks for readings used in worship. All lectionary systems are, of course, inventions of the church; the church adapts different readings at different times. One cannot speak of “The Historic Lectionary,” only of “many historic lectionaries.” And, sometimes we can learn a great deal from how the church long before our time read the Scriptures.
The system used in this particular manuscript includes readings for the days of “Pentecost Week,” the days leading up to the “Lord’s Day” (Sunday) of Pentecost. Our lectionary (in Lutheran Service Book), of course, does not. These readings are taken from Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 14–17. Here is an image of the first reading, for Monday, from John 14:27. The Greek reads (folio 144a):
in red ink: τη β προ της Ν (Monday of Pentecost Week)
in brown ink (with a couple spelling mistakes, no big deal):
μη ταρασεσθω υμων η καρ
δια μηδε δειλιατω η?
I found the reading for Monday of Pentecost Week interesting as a way to prepare for Pentecost. It begins in the middle of what we now label as John 14:27 (verse numbers were not invented until the middle 16th century). So the first words read in the week before Pentecost were: “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” The lection does not begin with the previous sentence, “peace I leave with you,” but with the invitation to confidence. This makes perfect sense leading up to Pentecost. In John, of course, there is no record of the ascension of Jesus. But, after the ascension, the natural response of the disciples was fear. The people who made the lectionary based on John went to Jesus’ great prayer and started with the words that calm fear. 14;28 continues: “I am going away, and I will come to you.” The promise is not—yet—that the Holy Spirit will come (that is later in John), but that Jesus himself will come back. This return of Jesus was to be the focus of the church as it waited.
Monday of Pentecost Week: John 14:27-15:7
The Pentecost Week lectionary skips over John 15 (the vine and the branches), which isn’t too surprising except that 15:26-27 (which we read on Pentecost) promises the sending of the Spirit.
Tuesday of Pentecost Week: John 16:2–13
The next reading is almost the opposite of Monday’s: 16:2-13 promises persecution and judgment. The church experienced this in the book of Acts, to be sure; we, however (at least we Americans) scarcely consider the possibility of persecution. A good text, and a good day, to pray on behalf of the persecuted church throughout the world.
Wednesday of Pentecost Week: John 16:15–23
This reading is much like that for Monday: it focuses again on Jesus’ departure and promised return.
Thursday of Pentecost Week: John 16:23-33
Thursday’s reading reinforces Tuesday’s: persecution will come.
Mistake: The Lord’s Day of Pentecost, which should be at John 7:37-52; 8:12
Then this particular manuscript makes a mistake. For some reason, it writes in the notation for the Feast of Pentecost at 17:1. But Friday hasn’t come yet, and the reading should be at 7:37 (more on that later).
Friday of Pentecost Week: John 17:18-26
The last reading given for the week of Pentecost is the great prayer for the unity of the church: “that they may be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” This is fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost, when people from every tribe, nation, language, and tongue have the Holy Spirit poured out on them in the preaching of the Gospel and the pouring on of baptism. With longing we still pray for this as yet unfulfilled promise of the unity of the church.
Now to the reading for Pentecost. In Lutheran Service Book‘s lectionary for Series B the Pentecost reading is John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15. Unlike the lectionary from the Middle Ages, this reading intentionally omits the promise of persecution; perhaps we Americans are too comfortable to be able to hear Jesus’ words of warning (promise?) that persecution will come, so we cut it out. But the Pentecost reading given for this particular lectionary system is 7:37-52; 8:12 (as a footnote, the “Woman caught in Adultery” story, not part of John’s original gospel, is lacking here). It begins, appropriately for the actual Day of Pentecost, with this promise:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37-38), and it ends, properly, with Jesus’ response (8:13) to the Pharisee’s claim that “no prophet arises from Galilee.” Jesus counters: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”
What a promise for Pentecost: In this man, from Galilee, is light. We do not walk in darkness. Even in the face of persecution, even in the face of fear, we walk in light. For the one who conquered death, reigns victorious, and is coming again, has given his Spirit to drink. Waiting for the return, experiencing persecution. The church long before us knew why Jesus sent his Spirit.
Images of 543 available at the CSTNM site
Chris Heaton May 26, 2012
Thanks for this post. It really helps to consider that Pentecost is much more than an “event” in the Church calendar, but a celebration of the calm in Christ we have now, knowledge of the trials that are still ahead, and the unity we hope and long for (and will receive) on the last day. It is great to see a snapshot into how the earlier church viewed this festival.
I greatly appreciate all you do to make content from the Sem available to folks in parts unknown! This not only includes this site, but the Lectionary At Lunches you participate in and oversee, as well as the Institutes you have conducted. Please keep up the work for the building up of the Body.