At this time of year the Church has two festivals – Ascension and Pentecost. Pentecost is the better known of the two, although it is also known as Whitsun. What is now known as the Spring, or late May, Bank Holiday used to be known as Whit Monday as it was associated with Whitsun. Pentecost (Whitsun) moves around in the calendar as it occurs 50 days after Easter which is itself a moveable feast.
This year Easter was late and so Whitsun is also late, with Whit Sunday falling on 9th June. Having a Bank Holiday in June would be difficult for a number of reasons and so the Spring holiday is two weeks beforehand on 27th May. So the association between this holiday and the Christian festival is lost. I wonder if already the festival of Pentecost (Whitsun) is as little known as Ascension. Whilst society in general may be less and less aware of these two Christian festivals, in the Church they are still well known – or at least Pentecost is! I must confess that in my Baptist church in London, Ascension Day was not celebrated at all. These two festivals, however, mark a turning point in the history of Christianity. On Ascension Day, forty days after he had risen from the dead on Easter Sunday, Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. The leader whom the first Christian disciples had followed for three years was taken from them. How were they to carry on the mission without him? They were told to wait in Jerusalem until ‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you’ (Acts 1:9). And the Holy Spirit did come on them ten days later during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. Jesus Christ, God in human form, was replaced on earth by the Holy Spirit, God in spiritual form, and so those first Christians – filled with the Holy Spirit – took God with them wherever they went. The result was that the Christian mission did not stall but flourished. What did the disciples do for those ten days between Ascension and Pentecost while they waited? We are told that ‘They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers’ (Acts 1:14). Under the leadership of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu, we are encouraged to do the same – spend ten days praying – and this is a call that has been taken up by almost all Christian denominations under the banner ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. Hopefully you will see this advertised at a church near you. Within this period of prayer between Ascension, 30th May, and Pentecost, 9th June, churches will be open so that anyone can go in to pray. In some churches there will be special displays and practical helps to show you different of ways to pray. Prayer is not limited to kneeling, eyes closed, head bowed and hands clasped – although there is nothing wrong with that. We can pray by lighting a candle, writing on a post-it and attaching it to a cross or a prayer tree. We can pray by singing a Christian song or reading a Christian book – the Bible is always a good starting point. It is an interesting statistic, gleaned from surveys in this country, that more people pray than believe in God! Why not join them in exploring prayer between 30th May and 9th June and perhaps you too may experience the Kingdom of God coming in your life.