PENTECOST and OUR BAPTISM BY THE HOLY SPIRIT “We celebrate the feast of Pentecost and of the descent of the Spirit, the fulfillment of promise and the achievement of hope. 0 how great and how exalted is the mystery!” (Pentecost Vespers, STICHERA, Tone 1) With these words we begin our liturgical celebration of Pentecost, solemnly concluding the yearly remembrance of our salvation. These words are taken from the famous homily of St. Gregory the Theologian, “On the Holy Spirit” which he delivered in Constantinople on the day of Pentecost, 381 A.D. (Oration 41,5)
According to St. Gregory, the descent of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of God’s promise, since Jesus Christ assured His Apostles that He would send them the “promise of the Father” (Lk 24 :49). By the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles received even more than they hoped for. The descent of the Holy Spirit brought to its completion the divine revelation of the Holy Trinity which St. Gregory called the ” great and exalted mystery.” In the Byzantine Rite, we celebrate this mystery at Pentecost, as is so beautifully indicated by another 8tichera:
“We have seen the true light, we have received the Heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, and we worship the indivisible Trinity; for the Trinity has saved us.” (Pentecost Vespers, STICH ERA, Tone 2) This ” true faith” inspired 8t. Gregory of Nazianz to deliver his sermon about the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Who ” completed the work of Christ.” Gregory’s sermon was addressed against the followers of his predecessor in the See of Constantinople, Archbishop Macedonius, (d. 362) who denied the divinity of the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity.
2 In the Old Testament, the Jews were ordered by God to celebrate the “Feast of Harvest” on the fiftieth day after the Passover (Ex. 23:16) in thanksgiving for the harvest, and were expected to make an “offering of the new fruits” of their crops. Hence they referred to this feast also as the “Feast of First Fruits” (Num. 28:26). Since, officially, the harvest lasted for seven weeks, the day was also called the “Feast of the Weeks” (Deut. 16:9-10).
In post-exilic times, the Rabbis had a custom of motivating their liturgical celebrations with certain events of their sacred history. Thus they tied the Passover with the miraculous liberation of their people from the Egyptian captivity, and the Feast of the Harvest with the Covenant of Mt. Sinai. According to the records of the Jews, the Mount Sinai events took place on the fiftieth day after the crossing of the Red Sea.
Since the Feast of Harvest was celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Jewish Passover, the Greek speaking Jews (Tab. 2:1; II Macc. 2:31-32) simply referred to it as “Pentecost” (Gr. pentekoste-fiftieth, meaning: hemeraday). Thus, at the time of Jesus, the Feast was generally known as the “Feast of Pentecost” and was celebrated in commemoration of the Covenant with great pomp and solemnity.
3 Before His ascension, Jesus Christ instructed His Apostles to stay in Jerusalem and to wait for the ” promise of His Father,” which was to be fulfilled in a few days (Acts 1 :4-5). After the Ascension, they returned from Mt. Olivet to the Upper Room where they spent their time in “continuous prayer” (Acts 1 :14) and worship ” in the temple” (Lk 24:53). This was the first retreat of prayer and meditation made by the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the close followers of Christ.
According to Jewish tradition, Moses awakened his people in the middle of the night in order to proclaim the Law of God to them. For this reason , in preparation for the Feast of Pentecost, the Jews would keep an allnight vigil during which they read the harvest and covenant themes from the Scriptures. The readings were interspersed by the singing of psalms and spiritual hymns. Some prophecies were also read , incIuding the Prophecy of Joel, saying :
“I will pour out my spirit on all mankind. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on my servants will I pour out my spirit in those days.” (Joel 3:1-2)
We can imagine the Apostles at that allnight vigil. They listened to these prophetic words with avid expectation. Down deep in their hearts they must have sensed their imminent fulfillment, and this did happen on the very next morning.
When they returned from the temple and gathered together in the Upper Room for morning prayers, suddenly the Holy Spirit descended upon them, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles:
“When the day of Pentecost came, they all had met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were staying. Then the tongues of fire appeared to them and, as they separated, they came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit prompted them.” (Acts 2:1-4)
The descent of the Holy Spirit took place on the Jewish Pentecost (Acts 2:1), which coincided with the fiftieth day after the glorious resurrection of Christ. Therefore, the Apostles also refe rred to this memorable event as Pentecost. (I Co. 16:8) But the celebration of this event as a separate feast came somewhat later, in the second half of the fourth century. St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), in his homily “On Pentecost,” already referred to it as the ” Great Festivity of Pentecost.” For the Christians it marked the completion of the redemptive work of Christ and the inauguration of the New Covenant, the Covenant of Grace which was poured down by the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost is a constant reminder of our own ” baptism by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1 :5), which we received at the time of our Chrismation (Confirmation) . As the priest, anOinting our body with the holy chrism (myro), pronounced the words: “The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon us, taking possession of our soul. We became a living ” temple of the Holy Spirit.” (I Cor. 6:19)
St. Peter did not hesitate to confirm this truth when describing the baptism of Cornelius’ house: “The Holy Spirit came down on them in the same way as it came down on us (the Apostles) at the ” beginning,” i.e. at the first Pentecost (Acts 11 :15). Similarly, S1- Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 387) explained to his neophytes: ” While our body is anointed with the visible ointment (chrism), our soul becomes sanctified by the Holy and Life-giving Spirit” (Catechesis 21, 3). The Holy Spirit gives us a new divine life and, therefore, we profess Him to be the “Giver of Life” (Cf. Symbol of Faith).
The divine life is the life of grace, making us “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1 :4) and true children of God: “The spirit you receive is not the spirit of slaves-but the spirit of children, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit Himself gives testimony to our own spirit that we are children of God!” (Rom. 8:15-16) Chrismation (Confirmation), then, is our own “Pentecost” when Jesus Christ pours upon us the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, enabling us to ” live a life worthy of our Christian calling” (Eph. 4: 10) as the children of God.
5 Since Pentecost was originally a feast of harvest, as was mentioned above, the Jews used to decorate their homes with the fruits of the harvest-flowers, green foliage, garlands etc.-in order to add more pomp and solemnity to their celebrations. This same custom was also adopted by the Christians. To them, however, the green branches and flowers took on a symbolical meaning-the divine life and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The festive decorations of flo w e r sand roses, it seems, was first introduced in Italy in the middle of the fourth century from where it spread to the East. Because of the decorations, the Pentecost festivities were referred to as “Festa Rosalia” (Feast of Roses). When the Byzantines accepted the custom , they also accepted the name with it and simply transcribed it into the Greek-“Rousalia.” Similarly, the Slavs in receiving Christianity accepted the custom and called the feast in their language-“Rusalya.” St. John Chrysostom (d . 407) admonished the faithful of his time not to celebrate the feast superficially, only adorning their homes with garlands (flowers), but rather spiritually adorning their souls with virtues in order to be more able to receive abundant fruits of the Holy Spirit (II Homily on Pentecost).
Another popular name for Pentecost used by our people is “Zelenyi Svjata” (Green Holydays). This stems from the custom of adorning the churches and homes with green foliage (preferably linden branches) and grass in celebration of the feast. The green color of the foliage was accepted by our people as a symbol of divine life brought to us by the Holy Spirit. For this reason also, the clergy wear green vestments for the liturgical services on Pentecost and its postfestive period.
6 Since we were created to God’s ” image and likeness” (Gen. 1 :26), and received the Holy Spirit at the time of our Chrismation (Confirmation), by living our life in Him we gradually restore our human nature to its pristine perfection. Justly, therefore, the Eastern Fathers of the Church call the process of our growing in the divine life our deification or divinization. And this we achieve only by our cooperation with the Holy Spirit Who sustains us and makes us grow in the divine life. Therefore, with piety and devotion, let us constantly implore Him with the well known Prayer to the Holy Spirit extensively used by our people:
Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of truth, You are everywhere present and fill all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life, come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all stain, and save our souls, 0 gracious Lord.