Celebrated fifty days after Easter, Pentecost is one of the great feasts of the Christian year. It commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’s apostles when they were gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks ten days after Jesus ascended to heaven, marking the birth of the church. Acts 2 describes the Spirit’s coming as accompanied by a “rushing mighty wind” and “tongues of fire”—quite the dramatic entry! The Spirit filled the apostles with the miraculous ability to preach in speech that was comprehensible to all the many Jewish pilgrims, from various language groups, who were gathered in the city, resulting in the conversion that day of three thousand to the Jesus Way.
I’ve compiled a Spotify playlist of one hundred-plus Pentecost songs that celebrate God’s Spirit poured out over the face of the earth, bringing life and power. The indie folk genre is heavily represented, but there’s also an Appalachian fiddle tune, a Renaissance motet, a Native American dance song, a Russian Orthodox kontakion, Sacred Harp hymns, modern classical, Pentecostal gospel, blues, jazz, pop, lo-fi, and more. I hope to capture something of the Spirit’s dynamism with these selections.
The Holy Spirit ministers in a handful of ways. He renews, purifies, transforms. He gifts and empowers. He guides and illumines and comforts. He dwells within, a constant friendly presence. He intercedes for us with wordless groans. He unites believers across lines of difference, making us one. He enables us to bear fruit—love, joy, peace, etc.—for God’s glory and the world’s good.
So many songs centered on the Holy Spirit have an individualistic focus and a gentle, subdued tone. The Spirit does of course minister to the individual, and can be gentle and soothing (Jesus refers to him as the Comforter, after all!), and we often invoke him in our weariness. But the Spirit is also wild and uncontainable. And the life he brings is not merely of an inward spiritual kind; his impact manifests itself in tangible deeds out in the community, as those whom he fills go forth to serve their neighbors after the example of Christ.
Urban Doxology’s “Spirit, Send Your Fire” is a good example of a Holy Spirit song with an outward, communal focus, and it’s full of anticipatory excitement:
In terms of energy, consider the vigor with which Bach ornaments the final line of the Gloria, “Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris” ([You, Jesus Christ, alone are the Most High] with the Holy Ghost in the glory of God the Father), in his B minor Mass. And for wildness: the loud clashing of the piano chords in Daniel Glover’s “The Descent of the Holy Spirit” from Misteria, evoking a sense of the disorientation that must have been felt on that historic day when the Spirit came suddenly sweeping in and the apostles started speaking multiple languages at once. (Some observers thought they were drunk!)
“Let the Waters” is another high-octane Pentecost song—this one in a rock style—which Michael Gungor wrote in 2014 when he was part of the Liturgists. In 2020 he revisited it with the Good Shepherd Collective, adding as a tag the African American spiritual “Wade in the Water” [previously]. In this context the spiritual references both the Spirit’s tendency to disrupt and the ancient Jewish folk belief that an angel would periodically come down to stir the waters of a certain pool in Bethesda, activating its healing properties (see John 5:4). The GSC released this new arrangement later in 2020 under the title “Pentecost,” featuring on vocals Gungor, Liz Vice, and Charles Jones.
Let the waters cool ya
Let the Spirit move ya
Feel the fire on your lips and sing your hallelujah
Sing your hallelujah
O my soul, sing hallelujah
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water
Led by Betty Pamptopee of Isabella Reservation, Michigan, “Methodist Hymn” is the first verse of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” in Ojibwe (but to the tune of “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed”). Even though “tongues” in the song’s titular first line is probably referring not to languages but to the individual’s desire to maximize God’s praise—as in “Oh, that I had more tongues to praise you with!”—I love the implications for Pentecost, when the gospel went out in many tongues, the beginning of the “proclaim[ing] and spread[ing] through all the earth abroad / the honors of [Jesus’s] name.” I think there’s massive potential for a multilingual choral arrangement of this hymn. (I’m thinking, for example, of Laurel MacDonald’s “Qui habitat,” featured here.)
Several of the songs on the playlist highlight the Spirit’s creativity, such as verse 1 of “Come, Holy Spirit” (alt title: “Holy Spirit, Groaning”) by David Benjamin Blower. Genesis 1 says that in the beginning, the Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos—implying that he was active in creation. And he is still a creative force, bringing forth new life.
Hildegard of Bingen [previously], a twelfth-century nun and polymath from Germany, wrote several beautiful Latin antiphons to the Holy Spirit, both words and music, which together convey a sense of mystery and awe. One of them is “Spiritus sanctus vivificans,” from her Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations, sung here by soprano Anna Sandström:
Here are two English translations; I can’t decide which I like best, so I proffer them both:
Holy Spirit, giving life to all life, moving all creatures, root of all things, washing them clean, wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds, you are our true life, luminous, wonderful, awakening the heart from its ancient sleep. Trans. Stephen Mitchell
The Spirit of God is a life that bestows life, root of the world-tree and wind in its boughs. Scrubbing out sins, she rubs oil into wounds. She is glistening life alluring all praise, all-awakening, all-resurrecting. Trans. Barbara Newman
Most songs take the form of calling on the Spirit to descend once more with the breath or fire of revival, such as many of the old hymns: by Ambrose (retuned by Bradford Loomis and Beth Whitney), Rabanus Maurus, Bianco da Siena (retuned by Seth Thomas Crissman, and another version by Luke Brodine), Martin Luther (retuned by Paula Best and Tara Ward), Heinrich Held (retuned by Joshua Bennetch), Isaac Watts (retuned by Jon Green), Joseph Hart (retuned by Stephen Gordon), Charles Wesley (retuned by Jered McKenna), Benjamin Beddome, and Samuel Longfellow (retuned by Seth Thomas Crissman, and another version by Greg Yoder, both of The Soil and The Seed Project).
For example, we might ask the Spirit to increase our love for God and others. In Watts’s “Come, Holy Spirit, heav’nly dove,” we beseech him to come “with all Thy quick’ning pow’rs; come, shed abroad a Savior’s love, and that shall kindle ours.” Or elsewhere, similarly, to “light up our mortal frame” with love, “till others catch the living flame” (Ambrose). The Spirit also kindles belief and trust. “Revive our drooping faith,” prays Hart.
(Related post: “Pentecost roundup”)
Further, the Spirit knits together diverse peoples into a brand-new family whose head is Christ. Fr. Peter Raymond Scholtes, a Catholic priest living on the south side of Chicago, penned the post–Vatican II hymn “One in the Spirit” (aka “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love”) against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. It proclaims that Christians are united by their share in, as the apostle Paul puts it, “one body and one Spirit . . . one hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . .” (Eph. 4:2–5), and prays “that all unity [across all humankind] will one day be restored.” It also emphasizes the importance of the church’s public witness through acts of love. As Jesus says in John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Love is the primary fruit of the Spirit that Paul lists in Galatians 5:22–23. Here’s a jazz arrangement of the hymn performed by Ruth Naomi Floyd:
Unity is also the theme of one of four featured hymns from the Orthodox liturgy for Pentecost, the text of which translates to: “When the Most High descended and confused tongues [at the Tower of Babel], he scattered the people; but when he distributed the tongues of fire, he called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, let us praise the most Holy Spirit.” Pentecost is often referred to as a reverse Babel.
There are several musical settings of scripture on the playlist, including:
- “Psalm 104: Lord, Send Out Your Spirit” by Roderick Bell and Rawn Harbor, a setting of Psalm 104:1, 24, 29–30, 31, 34, with an adapted verse 30 serving as the refrain: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”
- “O Children of Zion” by Seth Thomas Crissman (The Soil and The Seed Project), a setting of Joel 2:23a, 28: “O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God. . . . I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”
- “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis, a setting of John 14:15–17: Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate [/Helper/Comforter; Gr. parakletos, Paraclete], to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
- “The Spirit of Life” by Cody Curtis (Psallos), a setting of Romans 8:1–17, about living not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit, who is “life and peace” and who abides in us, enabling us to resist sin and bearing witness that we are children of God and therefore join heirs with Christ
- “God Is Love” by Ri-An, a setting of 1 John 4:7–21, about how we abide in God, and God in us, through the Spirit, who is love
There are also a few songs that reference the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones [previously], in which God brings his prophet to a desolate landscape littered with human bones. But then: “Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. . . . Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ezek. 37:5, 9). And the bones reassembled, took on flesh, and became animated once again—a picture of the regenerative power of God’s Spirit. (The Hebrew word for “spirit” is ruach, which can also be translated “breath”; same with the Greek pneuma.) Here’s Caroline Cobb’s “Dry Bones”:
Several of the playlist songs I’ve featured before on the blog: “Wind” by Joseph, “Abbeville” (Come, Holy Spirit, Come), “The Elements: Fire” by Hiromi and Edmar Castaneda, “Untitled” by Seryn, “If Ye Love Me” by Thomas Tallis, “The Earth Shall Know” by the Porter’s Gate, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” “Make of Our Hearts” by Hiram Ring, “Your Peace Will Make Us One” by Audrey Assad, and “This Little Light of Mine.”
I hope the Art & Theology Pentecost Playlist helps you to more fully exult in the myriad workings of the Spirit, who came in a blaze some two thousand years ago and burns still, all over the globe, where Christ’s kingdom has taken root.