Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To draw on students’ own experiences to develop insight into the nature of the Holy Spirit and the meaning of Pentecost.
Preparation and materials
- Collect some recordings of wind and fire sound effects and have the means to play them during the assembly.
- You will need a copy of Acts 2.1–4 (GNB) to read out in the ‘Assembly’, Step 1, below.
- See the options given in Step 2 and prepare accordingly.
- Create a list of a greeting translated into a wide range of languages and ask some students to learn them or practise saying them, ready to say or read them out in Step 4 of the assembly.
- See the ‘Time for reflection’ part of the assembly and decide which options you would like to use.
- For the song, the simple Jewish song 'Shalom chaverim' could be used, with extra verses devised along the lines of 'Peace be with you', translated into several other languages.
- Play some of the wind and fire sound effects and, shortly after they have started, read the following passage from Acts 2.1–4 (GNB):
When the day of Pentecost came, all the believers were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire which spread out and touched each person there. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
- Wind and fire, speaking in other languages – these are strange and vivid pictures. Let's explore them more closely.
The first two, at least, we know from our own experience. Wind and fire. What pictures of these formed in your mind when you listened to the sounds at the beginning?
At this point you could simply take the students’ responses to this question. Alternatively, a group could read from prepared lists, such as those below, pausing between each statement to allow time for an image of each to form in everyone’s minds.
– A howling gale, bending the trees, or a driving blizzard.
– A breeze bringing relief on a stifling hot day.
– Sailing boats or windsurfers twisting and turning skilfully to harness the wind.
– Wind turbines.
– Flying a kite.
– Raging fire sweeping through a building, a forest or moorland – destructive and terrifying.
– A bonfire, either in the garden or as part of a celebration.
– A fire in a fireplace, giving warmth and cheer.
– A blowtorch, scorching off old paint.
– A candle flame – quiet, steady, giving out a surprising amount of light.
- Now we turn to the even stranger part of what we heard. When it comes to speaking in other languages, it is harder for us to imagine what was going on, especially if we think of this as some sort of simultaneous translation that miraculously occurred somewhere between the speaker and the hearer – rather like when we see items reported on the news of international meetings and so on, but without any of the translators’ translations being relayed to delegates by means of headphones.
There are many theories of what 'speaking in other languages' or 'tongues' means. Perhaps we should think of it not as a miraculous translation of what the apostles were saying, but as a sudden outburst of praise in a multitude of languages, so that the hearers each heard a snatch of the language of their own home country.
As with most Bible stories, if we find it hard to imagine what took place (or, indeed, if we are not sure how it could have taken place at all), we may learn most if we start by asking what the meaning or message of the story is. In fact, that is what we are encouraged to do by the story itself in Acts 2.1:
Amazed and confused, they kept asking each another, ‘What does this mean?'
- Here is another interpretation.
Ask your group of students to say or read out the greeting in different languages they’ve been practising. Make sure they smile and shake hands or wave as they do so.
We may be divided by language, but we do tend to understand all the same if what is being communicated is universal, such as ‘Hello’. Everyone also smiles in the same language. Perhaps it is at this level that the Spirit works – creating and working through the universal values of love, peace and kindness and (to continue one of the images discussed earlier), through a burning desire for justice.
- Today we have been exploring the meaning of the festival of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Early Christian Church. There are many questions about what actually happened that day, but, if we look at those images of wind, fire and speaking in tongues, in each case there is power, a power greater than ours. Yet that power is available to us if we recognize the way in which it works and work with it. It's a power that can energize. A power that can make things happen. It is invisible yet very real in its effects. It is a source of comfort, a life-giving force. Some of the images we have been looking at may help to give us insight into and challenge stereotyped ideas of what the Holy Spirit is.
Perhaps the most important message of Pentecost is that the Spirit can bring fresh and new life into situations and, through these, bring healing to a divided world.
Time for reflection
A prayer or meditation could be produced that consists of a selection of the wind and fire images, this time applied directly to the action of the Spirit's in our lives. Here are some examples.
Lord, may your Spirit warm me . . . give me strength and energy . . . light my way . . .
You could even include lines from John Donne's famous sonnet, Divine Meditation 14 (available online and included in many anthologies):
Batter my heart, three-personed God . . . break, blow, burn, and make me new.
- Explore the background to Pentecost. The name is derived from the Greek word ‘pentekoste’ for 'fiftieth (day)', which refers to the 50 days of the grain harvest in ancient Israel. The 50 days was counted as starting from when the sickle was first put to the grain and the first newly harvested sheaf was presented at the beginning of Passover.
Pentecost celebrated the end of harvest and was a time of rejoicing and thanksgiving – not only for the harvest but also for God's goodness and mercy to his people. From these roots, it came to be regarded as the anniversary of the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Pentecost therefore comes 50 days after Passover.
After Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection at Passover time, the disciples stayed in Jerusalem (as Jesus instructed) until Pentecost and it was while they were gathered together to celebrate the feast that the Holy Spirit came upon them and empowered them to begin the Christian mission. Thus, Pentecost is sometimes described as the birthday of the Church. The term 'Pentecost' may also be used to refer to the whole period between Easter and the day of Pentecost, which is also known as Whitsun or Whit Sunday ('White Sunday'). This other name for Pentecost came about because it has traditionally been a time for baptism in the Church, hence 'White Sunday', referring to the white garments worn by those being baptized, which was shortened to Whit Sunday or Whitsun.
- Discuss the images of wind and fire used in the assembly. What do they have in common and what might they suggest to us if they are seen as symbols of the Holy Spirit? What other symbols are used to represent the Spirit? (Sword, dove and so on.)
- Improvise an evocation of the story of Pentecost with percussion, voices and other sound effects.
'Shalom chaverim' (see ‘Preparation and materials’ for further information)