This great festival commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost upon
the Apostles to abide in the Church for ever, according to the promise
to Christ. It has been annually observed from the very beginning,
having at first been engrafted by the Jewish Christians on to the festival
of Pentecost, but being mentioned as a separate feast of the Church by
the earliest writers among the Gentile Christians, as Irenaeus [Fragm.
de Pasch. in Justin Mart.] and Tertullian [de Coron. 3, de Idol. 14, de
Bapt. 19, de Orat. Orat. 23], the latter of whom leaves it on record in
several places that this was one of the principal times for Baptism in
the early Church. Origen also names it in his work against Celsus.
The original name of the festival was derived from that given by Greek
writers in the Septuagint and in the New Testament to the Jewish feast,
and has precisely the same meaning as Quinquagesima, Pentecost being the
fiftieth day from the morrow of the Passover Sabbath. The
English name seems to be Whitsun Day, not Whit Sunday, and Neale suggested
its derivation from the Greek through the German Pfingsten. In mediaeval
English it is spelt both White Sunday and Wit Sunday; the first name appearing
to be associated with the chrisoms of the newly baptized; and the second
with the outpouring of wisdom (or, in old English, "wit") upon the Church
by the Holy Ghost on this day.
The original feast of Pentecost was instituted by God (as it is supposed)
as a memorial of the day on which He gave the law to Moses, and declared
the Israelites "a peculiar treasure, a kingdom of priests, and an holy
nation." [Exod. 19:5, 6] But the prominent character of the day was
that of a solemn harvest festival. On the morrow of the Passover
Sabbath, fifty days before, the first cut sheaf of corn was offered to
God, waved before the altar, with supplication for a blessing on the harvest
then commenced. On the day of Pentecost two loaves of the first bread
made from the new corn were offered (with appointed burnt-offerings), in
thanksgiving for the harvest now ended. Each of these objects of
the festival has a significant typical application. It was on this
day that the Holy Ghost descended to sanctify a new Israel, that they too
might be "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar
people" [1 Pet. 2:9]; and this separation of a new Israel from the world
began to be made when three thousand were added to the Church by Baptism
on the day of Pentecost. On this day also the "Corn of Wheat" (which
had fallen into the ground and died on the day of the Passover, and had
sprung up a new and perpetual sacrifice to God on Easter Day) sent forth
the Holy Spirit to make those five thousand the "One Bread" [1 Cor. 10:17]
of the Lord's mystical Body, a firstfruits offering to God of the Church
which had been purchased with His Blood.
The Collect for Whitsunday was formerly used every day at Lauds, and
was translated into English at least a century and a half before the Prayer
Book was set forth. It appears in all the English Prymers which preceded
the Prayer Book, and the ancient version given on Whitsun Monday seems
to have furnished some phrases to the translation now in use on this day.
Whitsun Week is one of the canonical Ember seasons, the summer ordinations
taking place on Trinity Sunday.
On Whitsunday (June 9th), in the year of our Lord 1549, the Book of
Common Prayer in English was used instead of the Latin Offices. That
day was doubtless chosen (for copies were printed and ready some time before)
as a devout acknowledgement that the Holy Ghost was with the Church of
England in the important step then taken. May He ever preserve these
devotional Offices from the attacks of enmity or unwisdom, and continue
them in that line of Catholic unity wherein He has guided the Church hitherto
to keep them.