The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE
FEAST OF OF PENTECOST
20th MAY 2010
Last week we looked at the Feast of the Ascension and saw that it was the celebration of the feast where Christ ascended in body to heaven after having accomplished everything he came to do on earth, which in a few words was to sanctify humanity and raise man to heaven and to the right hand of God. Before leaving this world he promised that he would send another “Comforter” who would abide with us for all times and who would teach us all things. The “Comforter” is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. Today we will look at the feast where this promise is fulfilled with the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the Church. The Feast for this event is called Pentecost and is celebrated 50 days after Easter which the name implies - Pentecosti means the 50th day. The 50days after Easter is this coming Sunday so appropriately today’s talk should help us to understand and participate more fully in the full meaning of the feast.
The festival of Pentecost has its origin in the Old Testament and it was celebrated 50 days after the Jewish Passover. Pentecost was one of the three great yearly feasts of the Jews, it was a feast of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the earth and it was a feast of remembrance of the covenant between God and Israel on Mount Sinai with the giving of the Old Testament Law. The Jews believed that the Law was given on the fiftieth day after their exodus from Egypt.
With the New Testament the feast took on a different meaning. Christ promised that after his Resurrection and Ascension into heaven he would send another Comforter, the Spirit of Truth who would abide with us for ever. This new covenant was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Holy Apostles and other disciples in the form of tongues of fire. Since that day The Holy Spirit abides in the Church and leads her into all truth, he performs and sanctifies the divine mysteries and through these he sanctifies the faithful. Christ established the Church when he chose His Twelve Disciples, but this was only the nucleus of the Church. The Church as a divine institution was founded by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost so in fact we can say that Pentecost is the celebration of the Church’s Birthday. There is also a wonderful comparison between the Old and New Testament Pentecosts. If as the Jews believed, the Law was given fifty days after the Jewish Passover and their exodus from the land of Egypt, the new law and new covenant was given with the descent of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the Christian Passover, in other words the Christian Pascha.
The event of the Descent of the Holy Spirit is narrated to us by St. Luke in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He says:
“When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” (Acts 2:1-11)
Let’s now examine the reading verse by verse.
1) “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.”
On the day of the Jewish Pentecost the disciples were all gathered together in one place. Christ had told them before his ascension not to leave Jerusalem until they had received the promise of the Father. (Acts 1: 4) The room where they were all gathered together was probably the same upper room of Mark’s house that was used for the Mystical Supper and where the disciples took up their abode. It was here that they and the women disciples and the Mother of God came together for prayer. The phrase “with one accord” means that they were gathered together for common prayer but reveals also the same spirit and unity of the disciples.
2) “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.”
Here there is a slight mistranslation in the KJV. The Greek says: “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as though being carried upon a violent breath or wind”. Suddenly and completely unexpectedly there was heard from heaven a fearful sound. It sounded like a violent wind. It is clear in spite of his deficient account that Luke wants to underline the supernatural character of the phenomenon: the unexpected of what happened which cannot be explained physically. With the words “a sound from heaven” he wants to reveal that the sound is of divine origin. The use of the conjunction “as” eliminates a physical explanation of what happened.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit had to be confirmed in a tangible way - the descent had to be heard and seen by men. Thus for the ears we have the sound and for the sight the tongues of fire. The Spirit doesn’t descend imperceptibly but perceptibly so as to make the miracle unimpeachable and above reproach.
The similarity of the sound as a violent wind isn’t by chance. The words breath – wind and spirit have the same root and similar meaning. In the Jewish and early Christian tradition the wind which blows was considered as the most suitable symbol to express the mystical energy of the Holy Spirit. Christ himself used the wind to describe the action of the Holy Spirit: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you cannot tell whence it comes, and whither it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:6)
The mighty sound filled the whole house where the apostles were staying. The house full of the breath of the Holy Spirit becomes a baptismal font so that the Apostles could be baptized in the Spirit as they were promised by the Lord when he said: “For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” (Acts 1:5)
3) “And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.”
After the hearing of the sound follows the sight of the tongues of fire: the apostles saw fire descending and immediately dividing itself into something similar to tongues of fire. The dividing of the tongues suggests the richness and diversity of the gifts of grace of the Spirit. But the form of the gift of the Spirit, in other words the appearance similar to tongues of fire reveals that the Apostles preaching which is done by the tongue would be the fruit and power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles received the gift of the Holy Spirit by way of tongues of fire because with their tongue they were to announce to the world the greatness of God.
As with the sound that Luke described as sounding similar to a violent wind, he describes the descent of the Holy Spirit as resembling tongues of fire. This means that the phenomenon was not fire but had an outward appearance similar to fire. Fire as a symbol of God and his presence is something that is held from Biblical tradition: remember the burning bush that appeared to Moses. We often speak of God as light and fire. We saw just a few weeks ago when we talked on death how if someone has good spiritual eyesight he sees God’s light but if he is blind to God he cannot see this light but feels it as burning fire.
In spite of this the tongues of fire are not the Holy Spirit itself, but his energies. The Holy Spirit is God and God’s nature is above the material world and is unapproachable to men, and to their senses and mind. What we participate in is the energies and gifts of God which according to the Fathers of the Church are uncreated and above nature.
In the verse we are examining it says that the tongues of fire sat on each of the apostles. The verb to sit is not used here arbitrarily by Luke. It is used to underline that the gift of the spirit rested and remained with the apostles permanently. It reveals a difference with the prophets of the Old Testament who received the gifts of the Spirit periodically but not on a permanent base.
4) “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
For the first time, the disciples received the Holy Spirit when they met the Lord after his Resurrection. At that time the Lord breathed on them and said “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” This was a special grace given only to the Apostles with the power to forgive of to retain sins, but they had not as yet received the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Now they do not just receive a special grace of the Spirit but the Spirit fills their very existence. They are filled with the richness of graces so that they would be capable of the work they had before them to preach and evangelize the world. The results of the Descent of the Holy Spirit appear immediately after the event – they began to speak with other tongues: tongues other than their mother tongue which were strange and unknown to them. The promise the Lord made to them before his Ascension that one of the signs of those that believe will be that “they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17) has now been fulfilled.
Here we should say something we said a long time ago in a talk we had on speaking in tongues. Modern day Pentecostal and other charismatic churches give great emphasis on the gift of speaking in tongues and say that what they have is the same gift that was given to the Apostles at Pentecost. The truth is that the gifts of tongues was given for a special purpose and once that purpose was accomplished we see that it was never heard of again in the two thousands years of the Church’s history. The purpose of the Gift of Tongues was for the Apostles to be able to spread, by their preaching in foreign languages, the Christian Faith to all people and to make the Gospel known throughout the world. The gift of speaking in foreign tongues, or Glossolalia as it is referred to, was not given by God for all time, until the end of the world. It was a sign given to the Church only for a short period of time, with the aim of making it easier for those of other religions to convert to Christianity. St Paul himself prophesied that the gift of speaking in foreign tongues would cease. “Love” he said “will never fail: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” (1 Cor. 13:8)
The gift of tongues therefore served its purpose in the beginning of Christianity in order to awaken the idol-worshippers and Jews to belief in Christ. The first Christians would not have believed if they had not received signs. But if we compare the Apostolic speaking in tongues with the modern day speaking in tongues of the charismatic churches we see that they have nothing in common. The Apostles spoke and were understood by all that heard them: they spoke a recognizable and intelligible language. In contrast to the Apostles, the charismatic churches who speak in tongues often talk gibberish, sounds that make no sense. They of course justify their speech as being heavenly language so of course we cannot understand. But apart from “speaking in tongues” they have other gifts which they claim are also gifts of the Holy Spirit, like being “slain in the spirit” where people fall backwards and often remain in a trance-like state for some considerable time. Some have exhibitions of uncontrollable fits of laughter which they call “Laughing in the spirit” others again exhibit other gifts such as Getting drunk in the spirit, Weeping in the Spirit, barking like a dog and many kinds of trembling and contortions, and falling to the floor. All these things have absolutely nothing in common with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit that filled the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. And if they are not gifts of the Holy Spirit then they must be gifts of another kind of spirit which we can term as unholy.
As already said, the purpose of the gift of tongues was temporary with the purpose of spreading the Gospel to all nations and uniting them in one faith. It brought into unity what had been divided during the building of the Tower of Babel. At that time the Bible tells us that the earth was of one language, but because of their arrogance in trying to build a tower to heaven, the Lord confounded the language so that they could not understand each other. (Gen. 11: 1-9) With the gift of the tongues of fire the Holy Spirit calls all nations and languages to unity again. This is the message we receive from the Kontakion hymn for the day: “When the Most High descended He confounded the tongues and divided the nations, but when he parted the tongues of fire He called all to unity: Wherefore with one voice we glorify the All-Holy Spirit.”
5) “And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.”
Since the Jewish Feast of Pentecost was a great pilgrimage feast, many people from throughout the Roman Empire were gathered in Jerusalem on this day. But there were also a great many, who came from the Jewish dispersion who wishing to live the remainder of their lives under the shadow of the Temple and sharing in the rich religious life in the official centre of Judaism, that had made themselves permanent citizens of Jerusalem. It is these that Luke is referring to when he says “devout men dwelling in Jerusalem”. St. John Chrysostom says that living in Jerusalem was a sign of piety. People from the dispersion would leave the place of their birth, their homes and families to live in Jerusalem because it was believed that the time had come for the appearance of the expected Messiah. Of course among them were also many proselytes who had through circumcision embraced the Jewish faith.
6) “Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.”
It would seem that the sound that came from heaven and sounded like a violent wind was not only heard within the house where the Apostles were but was also heard outside the house. This draws the attention of the people of Jerusalem who quickly gather outside the house. There they were confused because they heard the apostles speaking to them each in his own language.
7-8) “And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?”
The initial confusion of the crowd is soon transformed to amazement and wonder. The miraculous event left strong impressions in the people’s hearts and quite naturally they began to wonder and enquire among themselves what had happened and to give some kind of explanation to this strange event to which they had become witnesses. They knew that Jesus’ Disciples came from Galilee; it was therefore a great surprise that these few men who were born and raised in the Palestinian countryside as was Galilee, and who had no special education, to suddenly be able to speak foreign and strange languages from far away countries.
9-11) “Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.”
Here we are given the various races of those that were at Jerusalem. The list begins with the peoples to the east and working round to the peoples of the west. It doesn’t mention all the people of the Jewish dispersion for example it doesn’t mention Syria, Macedonia, and Achaia. Again they didn’t all have different languages – some spoke the same language but had a different dialect which only a native could fully understand. But whether language or dialect everyone heard in his own tongue the wonderful works of God. What were these works? This can only refer to the wonderful works of God which brought about the salvation of man. This is seen in the contents of Peter’s speech which immediately follows – the mission of the Son of God in the world, the Cross, the Glorious Resurrection, the Ascension, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These consisted the wonderful events that Christ’s disciples told the Jews inspired with the power of the Holy Spirit which had filled their very existence.
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit that the Apostles received was not given exclusively only to them but to every person baptized into the Church. Each and every one of us receives the same gifts during the anointing with the Holy Chrism immediately after baptism. In the time of the Apostles and the early centuries of the Church this was done by the laying on of hands. Of course not just anyone had the power to transmit to others these gifts: it had to be done through the hands of the Apostles or the Bishops who were empowered to do so. In the Acts of the Apostles we read how the Apostles laid their hands on the faithful and in that way passed on the gifts of the Holy Spirit: “Then laid they their hands on them, [those who were baptized] and they received the Holy Ghost” (Acts 8: 17). “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them” (Acts 19: 6).
As the Apostles ordained bishops they too were also empowered with the laying on of hands, but as the Church began to grow in numbers it was impossible for the bishops to be present at all the Baptisms and so the Church introduced the use of the Holy Myron which through prayers by the bishops was sanctified and then given to the priests to anoint the newly baptized. In this way it was not necessary for a bishop to be present. Whether the recipient received the gifts of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of the bishop’s hand or through the Chrism, the Sacrament was truly administered, for both these are the sensible and visible elements of the Sacrament. The invisible and supernatural element is always Divine Grace. Thus at baptism every Orthodox Christian receives his own Pentecost, his own descent of the Holy Spirit upon him and the gifts of grace that accompany this giving of the Holy Spirit, but these remain invisible and become manifest only in Orthodox Christians who have attained Christian perfection, purified and prepared beforehand by repentance. The Feast of Pentecost is therefore not just a celebration of an event in history: for Orthodox Christians it is also a celebration of their membership in the Church. They have lived Pentecost and received "the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" in the sacrament of chrismation.
Pentecost is also known as Trinity Sunday. Besides celebrating the Descent of the Holy Spirit, the feast also celebrates the full revelation of the divine Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Officially there is no feast day for the Holy Trinity, but with the Descent of the Holy Spirit the fulness of the Godhead became manifest and the Church hymns celebrate this manifestation as the final act of God's self-disclosure and self-donation to the world of His creation. Thus in many Churches two Icons are placed in the centre of the Church for veneration – the Icon of the Feast of Pentecost showing the Descent of the Holy Spirit as tongues of fire above the seated Apostles and the Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham showing the three angelic figures that appeared to him under the oak of Mambre.
In the 15th century, a Russian monk named Andrew Rublev gave this Icon a new form and meaning. He reduced the historical elements of the event, by omitting Abraham and Sarah, so that the main significance of the Icon was not in the historical biblical event, but in the dogmatic teaching of the Three consubstantial Persons of the Holy Trinity. The table was no longer the instrument to hold the food of hospitality, but became the altar for the chalice with the sacrificial lamb: symbolizing the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of God and indicating by the gestures of the three angels, the unity of their predetermined will and the divine economy. Although the Icon was the same event of the hospitality of Abraham, it now placed the historical event as a secondary factor to the symbolic representation of the Triune God and subsequently was renamed The Holy Trinity. I personally believe we shouldn’t have any Icons of the Holy Trinity and if anyone is interested they can read from my website my views on the subject in the Book –Discovering the Icon chapter 6.
As said earlier Pentecost is the day the Church was established and so it is also the Church’s birthday celebration. The Church celebrates her birthday with a two day feast, the Sunday which as we said is also dedicated to the Holy Trinity and the Monday which is dedicated to the Holy Spirit. On the Sunday immediately after the Divine Liturgy, we give the dismissal in the usual way, but we immediately begin again with the Vespers service for Monday which we call the Kneeling service. It is called the Kneeling service because we kneel during the reading of some very long prayers. As a Vespers service it should be sung in the evening, but because only a handful of people would actually attend the service in the evening the Church brought the service forward and placed it straight after the Liturgy so that many more people could participate in the Kneeling prayers. So keep in mind that this Sunday there is at least an extra hour of service.
In Cyprus the Monday of the Holy Spirit is also known as the Kataklysmos. This is not a religious festival but rather a folklore festival so before I explain what this is I must stress that the Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost and not the festival of the Kataklysmos even though the two have become as one feast.
Even though the festival of the Kataklysmos has become associated with the feast of Pentecost is it something completely different. Kataklysmos means a disastrous flood and it refers to the Old Testament Flood during Noah’s days when God punished the world by sending a flood over all the earth. In Cyprus, there must have been a pagan festival to ward off another flood which was celebrated around the same time as the Christian feast of Pentecost. When Cyprus became Christian the pagan feast was replaced with the Christian feast, but it left behind traces of its origin.
Basically Katyklysmos is a festival of water so for many families it is the signal to begin visits to the beach or swimming pools. In Limassol along the sea front hundred of stalls are set up selling various Traditional Cypriot sweets, lace, baskets and other products. Monday is also a national holiday so many families take the opportunity of the long weekend to get together for barbeques and lots of ice cold beer.
The main custom of the day is to throw or sprinkle each other with water and kids have a great time squirting us with water pistols. Sprinkling or throwing water at each other is part of the fun of the festival and it’s great for a few laughs. Now even though the festival is not Christian in origin we can give it a spiritual and Christian meaning: Christ said that “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life” and “He that believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this he spoke of the Holy Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive.” Christ symbolically speaks of water as representing the Holy Spirit, so pouring water on each other can be symbolic of the pouring out and receiving of the Holy Spirit which is the theme of Pentecost.