As at this time: Whitsuntide, time, and festivity

God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people, by the sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit ... - from the collect for Whitsun week.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord; according to whose most true promise, the Holy Ghost came down as at this time from heaven with a sudden great sound, as it had been a mighty wind, in the likeness of fiery tongues ... - from the Proper Preface for Whitsunday, and six days after.

The use of the evocative "as at this time" in the Whitsun collect and preface has a range of meanings enriching the observance of the festival.  It situates the celebration of the feast and its octave in sacred time, as the Homily for Whitsunday declared:

And hereof this feast hath his name, to be called Pentecost, even of the number of the days.  For, as St. Luke writeth in the Acts of the Apostles, when fifty days were come to an end, the disciples being all together with one accord in one place, the Holy Ghost came suddenly among them.

It also echoes the Christmas liturgy:

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin ... - from the collect for Christmas Day, said continually until New-year's Eve.

Because thou didst give Jesus Christ thine only Son to be born as at this time for us ... - from the Proper Preface for Christmas Day, and seven days after.

Perhaps strangely, the phrase does not occur in the collect and preface for Easter Day or Ascension Day, despite being no less appropriate for those feasts.  Its absence, however, ensures that the great cycle of feasts which begins with Christmas and ends with Whitsunday is marked out at beginning and ending with "as at this time". At beginning and ending, we are brought to recognise that this great feasts, the mysteries of the Faith, are grounded in time and human experience.  The long season of Trinitytide, with its space for teaching of and reflection upon these mysteries, both flows from and is oriented to the mystery of redemption occuring in time and space, not myths outside time.

The other significance of the Whitsun use of "as at this time" echoing the Christmas provision is that it emphasises the festivity which should characterise Whitsuntide.  To again quote the Homily:

the church hath thought it good to solemnize and keep holy this day, commonly called Whitsunday.

As Hooker recognised, there are three elements to festivity: 

praise, liberality and rest are as natural elements whereof solemnities consist - LEP V.70.5.

Echoing the festivity of Christmas, Whitsun was marked by festive liturgical provision for the day itself and the Monday and Tuessday of Whitsun week.  The Declaration of Sports issued by James I and reissued by the Royal Martyr - itself a classic Anglican statement of festivity - defended the traditional "Whitsun ales" ('ales' meaning parish feasting).  The traditional Whit Monday holiday also provided for rest from labour.  The loss of the culture of feasting and rest from labour at Whitsun has significantly undermined the celebration of the feast, for, as Hooker stated, these are "natural elements" of festivity: remove them, and the reason for festivity is obscured.  (The challenge here is for contemporary parishes to provide a context which, in some manner, restores these "natural elements".) Contemporary liturgies, of course, have gone a step further and also removed the "praise" which should characterise Whitsuntide, with the banalities of 'Ordinary Time' resuming on the Monday.

The richness of the Prayer Book tradition's provision for Whitsuntide is a means of ensuring resonant and evocative celebration of this feast.  It also calls us to ensure that true festivity surrounds the feast, the liturgy sanctifying the culture. And so we mark the ending of the great cycle of feasts for this year, rejoicing at Whitsuntide in "the manifold gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost, most excellent and wonderful in our eyes" (the Homily for Whitsunday). 

(The painting is Suzanne Stuart Davies, 'whitsuntide - blue bells in the yard'.)


  1. The great Victorian high churchman, M.F. Sadler, believed that of the many things retained from the patristic and medieval past in the Reformed English Church, the Church calendar was at the very top. Sadler betrays his Reformed Catholic credentials to great effect in "Church Doctrine Bible Truth", where he lavishes an almost hypertrophic praise on the Articles of Religion, which he describes as the greatest confessional statement of biblical truths known to man (my paraphrase.) Nevertheless, he firmly averred that apart from living out these truths in the feasts, fasts, seasons and holy days of the Christian year, the Articles were incomplete. No one could accuse Sadler of being indifferent to the necessity of maintaining orthodox doctrine. But he understood the difference between the liturgical commemoration of Christ's incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension, and the necessity of distilling these acts of redemptive history into doctrinal propositions. Both are necessary, but in their respective ways.

    1. That is an excellent account of the relationship between Articles of the Faith and the liturgy. Of course it was a classic High Church stance - holding Articles and Liturgy together, rather than abandoning the Articles (Tractarians), abandoning the Liturgy (evangelicals) ... or abandoning both (Ritualists!).

  2. Yes, indeed. Bp. Ryle is the best known example of this unforunate tendency to refuse the liturgy a rightful place among the formularies as a standard for doctrine. His sacramental theology was no thing to write home of either.

    And, yet, in other ways, Ryle's name warrants gratitude and blessing. His emphasis on the love of God manifested in his son, the gratuity of our salvation by grace through faith and our need to strive for holiness more than compensates for his weaknesses.

    1. I do think Ryle is a good example of what I mean and, indeed, of the considerable change that occurred within 19th century evangelical Anglicanism. Simeon's sacramental theology is considerably more substantive than that of Ryle. Also, Ryle's dismissal of 18th century Anglicanism was, ironically, shared by the Tractarians and Ritualists: they portrayed a century of theologically empty Anglicanism, rather than a vibrant theological and pastoral tradition. Ultimately, Ryle was as much as anything else a product of Tractarianism, a reaction to it.


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