The Feast of Pentecost
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
"The feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit." I say these words I've known since childhood, and all at once they strike me as if I'm hearing them for the first time. Yes, from the time I was a child I knew that ten days following the Ascension, meaning fifty days after Pascha, Christians from time immemorial celebrated and continue to celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit in a feast known by its church name as Pentecost, or more popularly as "Trinity," the day of the Trinity.
For centuries, to prepare for this feast the churches were cleaned and adorned with greenery and branches, and grass was strewn about the floor... On the day of the feast, at the solemn vespers, the faithful stood in church holding flowers in their hands. These customs explain how the feast of Pentecost entered Russian popular consciousness and literature as a kind of sun-filled, bright celebration, the feast of flowering, a kind of joyful encounter between human beings and God's world in all its beauty and grace.
All religions, including the most ancient and primitive, had a feast of summer flowering, a feast to celebrate the first appearance of shoots, plants, fruit. In ancient Judaism, this was the feast of Pentecost. If in Old Testament religion Passover celebrated spring's resurrection of the world and nature, then the Jewish Pentecost was the feast of movement from spring to summer, celebrating the victory of sun and light, the feast of cosmic fullness. But in the Old Testament a feast common to all human societies acquires a new meaning: it becomes the annual commemoration of the ascent of Moses up Mount Sinai, where in an inexpressible mystical encounter God revealed himself, entered into a Covenant, gave commandments, and promised salvation. In other terms, religion ceased being simply nature, and now became the beginning of history: God had revealed his law, his commandments, his plan for humanity, and had shown the way. Spring, summer, the eternal natural cycle, became a sign and symbol not only of nature, but of man's spiritual destiny and the commandment to grow into fullness of knowledge, life and perfect wholeness... Finally, in the very last phase of the Old Testament, through the teaching and insight of the prophets, this feast became a celebration directed toward the future, to God's final victory in his creation. Here is how the prophet Joel speaks of this:
And it shall come to pass afterward that 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. Even upon the men-servants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit. And I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth...before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered... (Joel 2:28-32) Thus, the Jewish feast of Pentecost is a feast of nature and the cosmos, a feast of history as the revelation of God's will for the world and human beings, a feast of future triumph, of God's victory over evil and the coming of the great and last "day of the Lord." All this must be kept in mind in order to grasp how the first Christians experienced, understood, and celebrated their feast of Pentecost, and why it became one of the most important Christian celebrations.
The Book of Acts, devoted to recounting the history of the first Christians and the initial spread of Christianity, starts precisely with the day of Pentecost, describing what took place fifty days after Christ's resurrection and ten days after his ascension into heaven. Just before his ascension Christ had told the disciples "not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he said, 'you heard from me..." (Acts 1:4). So in ten days, according to St Luke's account,
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance... And all who heard were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" But others mocking said, "They are filled with new wine." (Acts 2:1-4, 12.13)
To those witnesses who remained skeptical, the apostle Peter explained the meaning of the event using the words of the prophet Joel quoted above. "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel," he said, "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh..." (Acts 2:16,17).
For the Christian, therefore, the feast of Pentecost is the completion of all that Christ accomplished. Christ taught about the Kingdom of God, and here it is, now opened! Christ promised that the Spirit of God would reveal the truth, and now this is fulfilled. The world, history, life, time, are all illumined with the final, transcendent light-all are filled with ultimate meaning. The last and great day of the Lord has begun!
By Fr. Michael J. Oleksa
This is a portion of an article that deals with the issues of inculturation and evangelism as Orthodoxy finds itself in new lands and the struggle of allowing the “seed” to be planted in a new “soil.” Father Michael is an Orthodox priest in Alaska and has written extensively on missions and documenting the Russian monks who brought the Orthodox faith into Alaska as a model for Orthodox mission. -Fr. Christopher
The most obvious gospel paradigm for the theme evangelism and culture is the parable of the sower. The seed is the Word of God. But as St. Maximos the Confessor wrote in the seventh century, the Word of God is constantly revealing himself, becoming “embodied.” The Word establishes the created universe, the heavens tell his glory, the firmament his handiwork, for it is by the Word that everything that was made came into existence and is sustained in being. The Word is embodied first of all in the entire cosmos. The Word in the Cosmos has been misunderstood, after all. It was as if the Message revealed by the Word was written, as C.S. Lewis once said, in letters too large for us to read clearly. In the pre- Christian societies, he was wrongly identified with Neptune, Zeus, Adonus, Apollo, or in the modern world with the forces of the natural world, with the “laws” of chemistry, physiology, genetics.
So in the second embodiment the Word became easier to decipher. The Word of God is also embodied in the Holy Scriptures, in some ways in amore focused and understandable form. Even there, the possibility of misinterpretation arose, and the Scribes and Pharisees were constantly criticized for missing the intended meaning of the Law and the Prophets.
So ultimately, at the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He is called “Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” He is called “the Messiah.” “the Christ,” the Way, the Truth and the Life.” He calls himself “the Living Bread,” “the Son of Man,” “Living Water,” “the Good Shepherd.”
All of this is the Word of God, the seed in the parable of sower- and more. The gospel is also the Church, the mystical body of Christ, and the scattered seed can refer to the evangelical establishment of the church as the faith spreads geographically throughout the world. And fullness of the gospel, of the Christian faith, is Orthodoxy. The seed then means all these-the Word of God in all embodiments, the Gospel of Repentance, of the Kingdom, the sacramental and iconographic presence of Christ, the Truth of the Orthodox faith. And none of these existed in a vacuum. The seed always requires a specific place, some oil, in which to grow.
The Word of God as scripture must be expressed in human language, and language is culture. The gospel of the kingdom must be preached in human words, and words are culture. The presence of Christ must convey, manifested with signs, symbols, art, music, liturgical action, sacrament, and all this is culture. The Truth, like the seed, needs soil in which to grow, and the soil is culture.
The seed in the parable is scattered and some grows, some does not. But even the seed that reaches maturity produces different harvests, some thirty or sixty or a hundredfold. The same truth, the same gospel, the same Christ, when introduced into specific cultural context produces a unique harvest, for different soils have different levels of fertility. Climactic conditions vary from time to time and place to place. The reception of the Word of God varies accordingly, not only as individuals hear the gospel, understand the Truth, confront Christ, enter the church, but as cultures do as well.
No one plants without expecting a harvest. The results the church anticipates and for which it prepares, the goal of all that it says and does, is revealed in the gospel passage read on more Sundays during church year than any other: John ch. 17. It is no accident that the church presents our Lord’s prayer for unity to us more often than any other, for this is the ultimate goal of his life and mission, the fulfillment of the gospel. In the end, the scriptures tell us, Christ will be “all in all.” He will hold us, all people of all races, nationalities, ethnic groups, political parties, religious sects and creeds, and with all others, our friends, neighbors, and the enemies Jesus Christ commanded us to forgive, to bless, to love. For those who have loved and served him- and the neighbour the have abused, despised, rejected, exploited, hated- will be their sorrow, humiliation, their torment, their hell. Heaven and hell are not places we “go to,” but spiritual conditions we are already in.
We must become one, the way our Lord prayed to his heavenly Father, as the Holy Trinity is one, in total humility and love, each of us fulfilling the will of the Father as the son and the Holy Spirit perfectly and eternally do. This is the end toward which the church labours and strives. The church plants the seed in order to reap this harvest. No one can be the image of the Holy Trinity alone, as isolated individual. While only human beings, by an act of faith and commitment, can be saved, no one is saved alone. There is no such thing as an individual salvation, for salvation is to enter into the community of interpersonal love, love of God, fulfilling his will in all things, and the love of one’s neighbour, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
This is the goal, the harvest the church expects, awaits, and in which it invites all humanity to participate. The church’s vision, her soteriology and eschatology, while focused on Christ, is not exclusively Christocentric but Trinitarian. And the essence of his interpersonal unity-in-love, the possibly for many persons to be one, is revealed in divine love, tri-personal Agape, which, which makes the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, the three equally divine persons, one. We must always keep the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in mind in all the evangelists think, say and do. There is no place for coercion, persecution, intolerance or violence in planting the seed, in announcing the good news to the nations, for these tactics would render the ultimate goal, total Agape, unattainable. The church scatters the seed, offering the gospel to all, and in so doing, discovers the new harvest dimensions of the faith it had not consciously known, noticed or appreciated fully before.
Evangelism enriches the church. Inculturation blesses the church. Our Greek patristic legacy is the historic evidence of the creative process. The seed always needs soil in which to grow-the gospel always needs a culture in which to be planted, and the Holy Spirit produces various harvests in each culture and in each of us.