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Pentecost: The Descent of the Holy Spirit

In the Old Tes­ta­ment Pen­te­cost was the feast which occurred fifty days after Passover. As the passover feast cel­e­brat­ed the exo­dus of the Israelites from the slav­ery of Egypt, so Pen­te­cost cel­e­brat­ed God’s gift of the ten com­mand­ments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the new covenant of the Mes­si­ah, the passover event takes on its new mean­ing as the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ’s death and res­ur­rec­tion, the “exo­dus” of men from this sin­ful world to the King­dom of God. And in the New Tes­ta­ment as well, the pen­te­costal feast is ful­filled and made new by the com­ing of the “new law,” the descent of the Holy Spir­it upon the dis­ci­ples of Christ.

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 as rest­ing upon each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spir­it… (Acts 2:1–4).

The Holy Spir­it that Christ had promised to his dis­ci­ples came on the day of Pen­te­cost (Jn 14:26, 15:26; Lk 24:49; Acts 1:5). The apos­tles received “the pow­er from on high,” and they began to preach and bear wit­ness to Jesus as the risen Christ, the King and the Lord. This moment has tra­di­tion­al­ly been called the birth­day of the Church.

In the litur­gi­cal ser­vices of the feast of Pen­te­cost, the com­ing of the Holy Spir­it is cel­e­brat­ed togeth­er with the full rev­e­la­tion of the divine Trin­i­ty: Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it. The ful­ness of the God­head is man­i­fest­ed with the Spirit’s com­ing to man, 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. For this rea­son Pen­te­cost Sun­day is also called Trin­i­ty Day in the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion. Often on this day the icon of the Holy Trin­i­ty—par­tic­u­lar­ly that of the three angel­ic fig­ures who appeared to Abra­ham, the fore­fa­ther of the Chris­t­ian faith — is placed in the cen­ter of the church. This icon is used with the tra­di­tion­al pen­te­costal icon which shows the tongues of fire hov­er­ing over Mary and the Twelve Apos­tles, the orig­i­nal pro­to­type of the Church, who are them­selves sit­ting in uni­ty sur­round­ing a sym­bol­ic image of “cos­mos,” the world.

On Pen­te­cost we have the final ful­fill­ment of the mis­sion of Jesus Christ and the first begin­ning of the mes­sian­ic age of the King­dom of God mys­ti­cal­ly present in this world in the Church of the Mes­si­ah. For this rea­son the fifti­eth day stands as the begin­ning of the era which is beyond the lim­i­ta­tions of this world, fifty being that num­ber which stands for eter­nal and heav­en­ly ful­fill­ment in Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian mys­ti­cal piety: sev­en times sev­en, plus one.

Thus, Pen­te­cost is called an apoc­a­lyp­tic day, which means the day of final rev­e­la­tion. It is also called an escha­to­log­i­cal day, which means the day of the final and per­fect end (in Greek escha­ton> means the end). For when the Mes­si­ah comes and the Lord’s Day is at hand, the “last days” are inau­gu­rat­ed in which “God declares:… I will pour out my Spir­it upon all flesh.” This is the ancient prophe­cy to which the Apos­tle Peter refers in the first ser­mon of the Chris­t­ian Church which was preached on the first Sun­day of Pen­te­cost (Acts 2: 1 7; Joel 2: 28–32).

Once again it must be not­ed that the feast of Pen­te­cost is not sim­ply the cel­e­bra­tion of an event which took place cen­turies ago. It is the cel­e­bra­tion of what must hap­pen and does hap­pen to us in the Church today. We all have died and risen with the Mes­si­ah-King, and we all have received his Most Holy Spir­it. We are the “tem­ples of the Holy Spir­it.” God’s Spir­it dwells in us (Rom 8; 1 Cor 2–3, 12; 2 Cor 3; Gal 5; Eph 2–3). We, by our own mem­ber­ship in the Church, have received “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spir­it” in the sacra­ment of chris­ma­tion. Pen­te­cost has hap­pened to us.

The Divine Litur­gy of Pen­te­cost recalls our bap­tism into Christ with the verse from Gala­tians again replac­ing the Thrice-Holy Hymn. Spe­cial vers­es from the psalms also replace the usu­al antiphonal psalms of the litur­gy. The epis­tle and gospel read­ings tell of the Spirit’s com­ing to men. The kon­takion sings of the rever­sal of Babel as God unites the nations into the uni­ty of his Spir­it. The tropar­i­on pro­claims the gath­er­ing of the whole uni­verse into God’s net through the work of the inspired apos­tles. The hymns 0 Heav­en­ly King and We have seen the True Light are sung for the first time since East­er, call­ing the Holy Spir­it to “come and abide in us”, and pro­claim­ing that “we have received the heav­en­ly Spir­it.” The church build­ing is dec­o­rat­ed with flow­ers and the green leaves of the sum­mer to show that God’s divine Breath comes to renew all cre­ation as the “lifeÃ?creating Spir­it.” In Hebrew the word for Spir­it, breath and wind is the same word, ruah.

Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, who hast revealed the fish­er­men as most wise by send­ing down upon them the Holy Spir­it: through them Thou didst draw the world into Thy net. O Lover of Man, Glo­ry to Thee (Tropar­i­on).

When the Most High came down and con­fused the tongues, he divid­ed the nations. But when he dis­trib­uted the tongues of fire, he called all to uni­ty. There­fore, with one voice, we glo­ri­fy the All-Holy Spir­it! (Kon­takion)

The Great Ves­pers of Pen­te­cost evening fea­tures three long prayers at which the faith­ful kneel for the first time since East­er. The Mon­day after Pen­te­cost is the feast of the Holy Spir­it in the Ortho­dox Church, and the Sun­day after Pen­te­cost is the feast of All Saints. This is the log­i­cal litur­gi­cal sequence since the com­ing of the Holy Spir­it is ful­filled in men by their becom­ing saints, and this is the very pur­pose of the cre­ation and sal­va­tion of the world. “Thus says the Lord: Con­se­crate your­selves there­fore, and be holy, for I your God am holy” (Lev 11:44–45, 1 Pet 1:15–16).