A modern-day example of Pentecost
Peter Seal, 20 May 2018
Acts 2: 1–21; John 15: 26–27; 16: 4b–15
We heard in our first reading from Acts, ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.’ On this feast of Pentecost I want to talk to you about a modern-day example of Pentecost, a true outpouring of the Spirit.
Taizé is a small village in Burgundy in the south-east of France. It is little more than a hamlet; and yet … every week of the year, for over 50 years now, women and men, mainly but not exclusively aged between 18 and 30, have made pilgrimages to Taizé. During the winter months the numbers are in their hundreds. During the summer this increases to thousands – sometimes as many as 6,000 in one week.
I’ve asked a number of people this question: ‘Is there anywhere else in the world that welcomes so many Christian people, week on week?’ And the answer is no. Taizé is unique. It is a religious phenomenon of the age we live in.
I’ve been many times. The first occasion was in 1984 when I was a curate. I was there with Julia, Philip and Sarah when we were visiting Katie after Easter. It was a quiet week – there were just 950 people in the great church.
At its heart Taizé is a religious community – a community that prays three times a day: morning, midday and evening. The Prayer, as they call it, is distinctive. The great church is dimly lit. It has no chairs; everyone sits on the floor, or a step if they’re lucky.
Down the centre, marked off by a low box hedge about a foot high, is a long rectangular space for the Brothers. In they come from the front, wearing their flowing white habits. They arrive gradually and informally, perhaps over ten minutes, kneeling to take their places.
There is no talking. Pilgrims who talk are politely asked to stop. The church gets fuller, and fuller, as gentle classical music plays.
There is no one at the front to lead. This is symbolic and very important. All are facing the same way, all praying together. This makes manifest the Christian message of treating others as equals. All are equal.
All are seeking; waiting, expectant … the bells that ring wild are stilled. A number comes up on one of the small digital screens, people turn to their song books and the Prayer begins.
It’s quite impossible to describe the sound, and effect, of up to 6,000 voices. Songs are sung in only one language at a time, but during the week the songs will be sung in a number of different languages. It’s a real Pentecost experience. ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind.’ It’s also a bit like the waves of the sea breaking on the shore. Somehow, it doesn’t matter if you cannot pronounce the words of a song being sung in Polish or Latvian. You get caught up whichever language is being sung, you feel carried by the prayers of others, your own fragile faith is strengthened by those around you.
And then the singing ceases, and a silence begins … men and women, most of them aged under 30, and children too, from all over the world, silent. This is massively unifying. Everyone praying, thinking their own thoughts, together in a shared activity and purpose. The silence gets longer as the week progresses. (There’s quite a lot of coughing too, but somehow that doesn’t matter.)
There’s a story of a young man who had come to Taizé for the first time. He hadn’t been told that halfway through the Prayer there would be 10 minutes of silence. At first he thought there must be a delay in putting up the number of the next song. Then he realised that the silence was deliberate. But he was still confused. He happened to be sitting close to one of the Brothers, who he nudged, asking, ‘What are we waiting for?’ The Brother whispered, ‘The Kingdom of God’. This could sound trite, but it isn’t.
The holiness of that place makes this phrase somehow believable. There’s a sense in which the music awakens, and the silence deepens, the knowledge that God really is present, and actively so. He is inviting everyone to respond to his call of love, which he offers to every individual, out of love.
There’s a sense in which the music awakens, and the silence deepens, the knowledge that God really is present, and actively so. He is inviting everyone to respond to his call of love, which he offers to every individual, out of love.
Each week, the Brothers, along with the many pilgrims, enter into the heart of the gospel. Every Friday is kept as a ‘Good Friday’. After the Prayer in the evening, the large, distinctive, red-and-orange-coloured Taizé cross is laid on the floor, in the centre of the church.
And for a long time, often deep into the night, people make, as it were, a mini pilgrimage, to kneel around the cross. Some lay a hand upon it, others their head. Here, you sense, each individual is offering their personal troubles and needs to God. They are acknowledging the life-giving power of the cross to bring healing, wholeness, forgiveness, and new life.
And then, each Saturday night, during one of the songs a single candle is lit, and gradually everybody in the church lights a candle, sharing the light with the people sitting next to them. The church is filled with many tiny lights, with everyone singing a song. It might be ‘The Lord is my light, my light and salvation, in God I trust, in God I trust’.
Imagine you’re 17 again, working out how you want to live your life, wondering whether God exists, and if so whether he cares about you.
Imagine you’re 17 again, working out how you want to live your life, wondering whether God exists, and if so whether he cares about you. And if he does, what that might mean. And then being carried by the voices of thousands of others, many of them with similar thoughts to your own, as you sing, ‘The Lord is my light’ holding in your hand a candle – your very own Christ light.
This celebration of new light echoes our experience of Easter Eve/Holy Saturday when, after a long, long Lent, the light of the risen Christ becomes a new reality. So, in Taizé, each week becomes a Holy Week; every Friday a Good Friday; every Saturday an anticipation of the empty tomb; and every Sunday, what you might call a ‘little Easter’.
For us today, Taizé is a vivid example of the power of God’s Holy Spirit at work.