The “pente-” in Pentecost refers to the 50 days since Easter. The “whit-” comes from the white garments worn by those baptized during vigil on the night before this feast day.
The celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost has a particular relevance during times of heightened social division. At Pentecost, we learn that the often violent fragmentation of the human race (evident in the diversity of languages present when the mighty wind and tongues of fire suddenly appeared) can only be healed by God’s power. Peter Leithart has observed that secular programs and strategies to combat tribalism are destined to fail; the division of Babel and the reunifying of the human race is accomplished only in the Church.
Our opening hymn — “O come, Creator Spirit, come” — is an English translation of an early medieval Latin hymn. Two other translations appear in our Hymnal (#217 and #218), and the hymn is the only hymn specifically prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer (for use in ordinations). This hymn has been a regular part of the Western liturgies since at least the ninth century, and the tune we sing (associated with this text from its earliest appearance) is even older than the text.
Our Sermon hymn — “Spirit divine, attend our prayers” — was written by Andrew Reed (1787-1862), a Congregational Pastor who served in a chapel in London for many years. The tune — GRÄFENBERG — first appeared in print in 1653. It was composed by Johann Crüger (1591-1662), one of the greatest composers of chorale melodies of the 17th century. Eight of his tunes are in our Hymnal, and we’ll sing another of them at Communion.
The Offertory Anthem and Communion Motet sung by the choir are both by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1524-1594). At the Offertory, we sing Palestrina’s setting of the same text that the congregation sang in our opening hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus. Palestrina’s setting follows the common convention during the Renaissance of alternating between plainchant and polyphony. The first stanza begins with one phrase chanted by the men and then all four voices complete the stanza, each voice chiming in from time to time with that VENI CREATOR melody, or a short snatch of it. Then the second stanza is chanted all the way through by tenors and basses before another polyphonic stanza with all the voices. On the final stanza, a fifth voice is added (a second tenor part) to end the work with a richer sound.
At Communion, the choir sings Palestrina’s setting of Loquebantur variis linguis, one of the texts traditionally sung at Matins on the feast of Pentecost.
The Apostles spoke in many languages of the great works of God, as the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of speech, alleluia. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak, alleluia.
Our two Communion hymns are “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” (well, the miraculous presence of God among his people produces miraculous speech as well as awe-struck silence, right?) and “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,” which features another one of Crüger’s great melodies.
Our closing hymn — “Come down, O Love divine” — is a translation from Italian of a passionate text by the 14th-century devotional poet, Bianco da Siena. The tune — DOWN AMPNEY — was written by Ralph Vaughan WIlliams especially for this text’s inclusion in the 1906 English Hymnal.
There was originally another stanza to this hymn, which has been omitted in our Hymnal. It emphasizes the gift of love conveyed by the Spirit which makes true unity possible:
Let holy charity
mine outward vesture be,
and lowliness become mine inner clothing:
true lowliness of heart,
which takes the humbler part,
and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.