The Feastday of Pentecost

We have seen the True Light; we have received the Heavenly Spirit; we have found the true Faith, in worshipping the indivisible Trinity; for He has saved us”.

(Sticheron at Saturday Great Vespers for Pentecost Sunday)

 Introductory Remarks

The feastday of Pentecost (Greek: Πεντηκοστή, “the Fiftieth [day]”) is one of the prominent feasts within the Orthodox Christian liturgical year which commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples after His Resurrection. This event is celebrated 50 days (seven weeks) after the feast of Pascha (Easter), and it follows some ten days after the feast of Ascension Thursday, which marks Christ’s ascension into heaven. Due to this close association with Pascha, Pentecost thus forms part of the moveable cycles of feasts within the Church calendar, and as such the dating of this feastday will vary from year to year.

 Origins & Significance

Jewish Traditions

This particular feast traces its origins back to the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Heb. – Shabuoth or Shavuoth), also known as Pentecost (Deuteronomy 16:9-10). Pentecost according to Jewish tradition was celebrated in late spring during the Hebrew month of Sivan, seven weeks after Passover (Pesach), and was traditionally a thanksgiving festival for the first grain harvests (Exodus 23:16; Numbers 28:26) that were gathered that year and offered back to God.

Yet later on in Biblical times, this thanksgiving festival became linked to the spiritual significance of Passover, in that the Jews were delivered out of Egypt, and in the course of their wandering within the wilderness they were bestowed with God’s Law that guided them into light and life (khalakh), as well as a land in which to dwell in. Therefore the significance of Pentecost took on a new and deeper meaning since it became a celebration of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai to the Prophet Moses, and subsequently set the tone by which Jewish culture and society evolved.

To put it in other words, the first-fruit of the grain was a testimony and thanksgiving for the giving of the Law and God’s covenant which not only delivered the Jews out of Egypt into a Chosen Land, but set the manner by which to live. In the course of festal development within the Jewish tradition, religious observances included the reading of the Book of Ruth and the decoration of the home and synagogue with greens. In addition, a dairy meal, symbolic of milk and honey, was eaten.

Christian Interpretation and Understanding

Firstly the significance to both Jews and Christians is the symbolism of the number fifty, which stands for eternal and heavenly fulfillment, that is seven times seven, plus one.

 The Law of the Spirit and the Covenant

However more specifically for Christians, this feast which marks the descent of the Holy Spirit signified the confirmation of the Mosaic Law and God’s promised covenant in the spirit, just as Christ cites to the Samaritan woman (St. Photini) that, “you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:21-24).

The particular inference of this statement refers to the fact that the more elementary and ritualistic parts of the Law are not of final or salvific importance, since the objective of worship is to glorify and commune with God in spirit and truth. Furthermore that this worship will not be confined to any specific geographic area but as implied will be open to all, but that the Jews had been privileged to receive it first. This of course raises the question over why were the Jews specifically chosen to bring salvation to the world? The answer is twofold, firstly to cultivate and put into practice the worship of the One True Living God in accordance to divinely inspired principles as set out in the Law within the world. Secondly, through this example within the world, to bring forth the Messiah who will come to administer to all nations, including the Jews, bestowing unity of prayer and peace to the world.

In practical terms this effort was often hampered throughout the course of Jewish history whereby God often sent Prophets to guide the people back towards fidelity to Him, as Christ exclaims that many prophets and righteous people were sent, but were killed by those seeking worldly objectives (cf. Mt. 23:13-39, give particular attention to vv. 34 and 37). The adherence to the Law in spirit often gave way to the ritualistic elements and man-made traditions which gave the appearance of living within the Law according to its letter, but not its true meaning, guiding the Israelites instead on a secular course of religious-ethnic nationalism. A point highlighted in Mt 15:3, 6 whereby Christ asks; “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?…Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition”. Further on in the same passage Christ reiterates the point by quoting the Prophet Isaiah in vv. 7-9: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honour Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men…(Is 29:13)”.

 One example Christ used to illustrate how the Law had been twisted into legalities and loopholes, whereby the Jews only adhered to it only in letter, but not in spirit was the issue of marriage: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery, and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Mt. 19: 8-9). Evidently this was but one point of contention, whereby the Law had been abused to such an extent, that Christ protested and called into question the practices of the day, when He was conducting His earthly ministry.

Another example was the extreme observance of the Sabbath, whereby simple acts of mercy would be condemned, since they were defined as work. This of course went contrary to what the Law sought to promote, in that works of mercy should not be condemned, and should be performed any day of the week for they constitute the weightier matters of the Law, as Christ demonstrates by healing the man with the withered hand in Mt 12:10-14. As response to His detractors, Jesus cites that when a person’s livelihood is at stake (cf. v. 11-12), the faithful would break the Sabbath rules since the Sabbath was created for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath (cf. Mk 2:27).

In an extreme example through His parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25-37), Christ points out that the Levite and the priest allowed the rites of purification stand in the way of fulfilling the most basic and fundamental of all of God’s commandments which was: “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself” (cf. Deut. 6:5; Lev.19:18; Mt 22:37-40). Whereas, the Samaritan who was not bound by the rites of purification, and did not allow himself to be bound by them, showed more mercy to the man who was left for dead, than the Levite or the priest. In effect, to put it as Christ would say: “First cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, so that the outside of them may be clean also” (Mt 23:26).

In spite of these failings within Jewish history and society, led quite often by the appointed authorities, God remains faithful to His promise and overcomes the obstacles that people put before Him, by raising righteous people within Israel and bringing forth from them the Messiah to teach all the nations. Thus in fulfilling their role of salvation to the world, they as well as all other peoples who receive the teaching of the Messiah, would be judged according to both the Law of Faith and the Law of the Heart, as St Paul refers to it within his epistle to the Romans. It is to this that Christ refers to, when He says that He did not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill their teachings (cf. Mt 5:17).

Nevertheless this Law of Faith as spoken of by St Paul, is a reference to the Apostolic preaching of Christ, who shows us the way to God the Father, and is the calling to all people who are willing to accept God’s entreaty, to unity with Him via salvation through repentance. Belief, hope and love underpin this calling, which has as its final stage the attainment of divine wisdom, hence living and worshipping God in spirit and truth. This is as opposed to living under the burden of the Mosaic Law which St Paul calls dead, because the traditions of men have obscured its meaning and practice. Thus accepting the Law of Faith, one not only rediscovers the spirit of the Mosaic Law, but its very breath and foundation.

Whereas the Law of the Heart refers to human conscience, and is viewed as the Natural Law by which all peoples receive at the moment of conception and birth, for it is inscribed on every person’s heart, whether they have heard the Gospel or not. Accordingly each person’s actions, thoughts and deeds shall be weighed against this natural standard and judged. Yet to whoever has received the Law of Faith will be judged by it and the Law of the Heart, and thus is examined according to a higher standard, for as Christ says to whom more is given, more is expected (Lk 12:48).

In having said all this, the day of Pentecost is a day which marks the fulfillment of the Law, whereby God provides a direct guiding hand into adherence to His Laws upon all humanity. Out of exceeding love which knows no bounds, God has poured out His Spirit upon all of humanity (cf. Joel 2:28), to directly guide all peoples in the light of spirit and truth along the way of the Law, as expressed by its greatest exponent, Christ the Word of God. For as Christ says He will not leave us orphans (Jn. 14:18), but that the Father will bestow a Helper (Paraclete) that will abide with all those who follow God, assisting them always into truth, but whom the world cannot receive, since it neither sees Him nor knows Him, but will be experienced by the faithful (cf. Jn. 14:15-17).

This particular point as Christ states (cf. Jn. 16:5-15), is to the advantage of the faithful, because if He does not depart, the Paraclete would not descend upon the faithful to guide them, and the world would not receive its terrible reward for the injustice that it meted out to the righteous of every age. Thus the coming of the Paraclete will convict the world of sin, for many did not accept Christ. Whereas the conviction of righteousness, will be bestowed upon those who do accept Christ and are thus guided by the Paraclete along the proper way to the Father as shown through Christ’s ministry of service and subsequent Resurrection and Ascension. Hence the believers are shown the rewards for cultivating a proper relationship with God, (that is salvation through union with God – theosis).

While judgement is proclaimed upon the ruler of the world, that is the devil, who has been defeated through the works of salvation. Furthermore, the bestowal of charismatic gifts upon the faithful, will be the reward for remaining true and sincere to God’s calling, that will help guide, guard and enrich their lives, revealing all truth and even the future to them, (cf. Jn. 16:5-15).

The Beginning of the Messianic Age of the Kingdom of God

This now brings us to the question of ministry of the Spirit, that which is known as the Church. For the feast of Pentecost marks the final work of Christ’s earthly ministry which seeks to usher the first beginning of the messianic age of the Kingdom of God, mystically present in His Church, which is known as the One Holy Catholic[1]  and Apostolic[2] Church, and is called to ministering to the whole world. For each Orthodox Christian, the feast of Pentecost is not merely the celebration of a historic event, but is also a celebration of their membership within the Church, since every believer has lived Pentecost through receiving “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” in the mystery (sacrament) of chrismation after they were baptised.

Nevertheless, it is an error to refer to the feast of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, rather it marks the ministry of the Church to the whole world, and not specifically to Israel or certain families and individuals as cited in the Old Testament. Therefore prior to Pentecost, the Apostles were not permitted to go amongst the Gentiles to preach, until the Gospel had been fulfilled, that is, at the completion of Christ’s salvific ministry which was then confirmed upon the day the Paraclete was sent upon them.

Patristic writings and witness reaffirm this particular point, for within the second vision of The Shepherd of Hermas we read:

“Now brethren, a revelation was made unto me in my sleep by a youth of exceeding fair form, who said to me, `Whom do you the aged woman, from whom you received the book, to be?‘ I said, `The Sibyl.’ `You are wrong,’ said he, `she is not.’ `Who then is she?’ I said. `The Church,’ he said. I asked him, `Wherefore then is she aged?’ `Because,’ he said, `she was created before all things; therefore is she aged, and for her sake the world was framed”.

Saint Gregory the Theologian also speaks of “the Church of Christ … both before Christ and after Christ”. Saint Epiphanios of Cyprus writes, “The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ”. Saint John of Damascus observes, “The Holy Catholic Church of God, therefore, is the assembly of the holy Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Evangelists, and Martyrs who have been from the very beginning, to whom were added all the nations who believed with one accord”. According to Saint Gregory the Theologian, “The Prophets established the Church, the Apostles conjoined it, and the Evangelists set it in order”.

The Church existed from the creation of the Angels, for the Angels came into existence before the creation of the world, and they have always been members of the Church.

Saint Clement, Bishop of Rome, says in his second epistle to the Corinthians, the Church “was created before the sun and moon”; and further on states that, “The Church existed not now for the first time, but had been from the beginning”.

That which came to pass at Pentecost, then, was the ordination of the Apostles, the commencement of the apostolic preaching to the nations, and the inauguration of the priesthood of the new Israel.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria says that “Our Lord Jesus Christ herein ordained the instructors and teachers of the world and the stewards of His divine Mysteries … showing together with the dignity of Apostleship, the incomparable glory of the authority given them … Revealing them to be splendid with the great dignity of the Apostleship and showing them forth as both stewards and priests of the divine altars . . . they became fit to initiate others through the enlightening guidance of the Holy Spirit”.

Saint Gregory Palamas says, “Now, therefore … the Holy Spirit descended … showing the Disciples to be supernal luminaries … and the distributed grace of the Divine Spirit came through the ordination of the Apostles upon their successors”; While Saint Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, writes, “After the visitation of the Comforter, the Apostles became high priests”.

Therefore, together with the baptism of the Holy Spirit which came upon them who were present in the upper chamber, which the Lord had foretold as recorded in the Acts, “you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days hence” (Acts 1:5), the Apostles were also appointed and raised to the high priestly rank, according to Saint John Chrysostom.

Furthermore, on this day commenced the celebration of the Holy Eucharist by which we become “partakers of the Divine Nature” (2 Peter 1:4). For before Pentecost, it is said of the Apostles and disciples, only that they abode in “prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14); it is only after the coming of the Holy Spirit that they persevered in the “breaking of bread”, that is, the communion of the Holy Mysteries “and in prayer” (Acts 2:42).

The feast of holy Pentecost, therefore, determined the beginning of the priesthood of grace (the order of Melchizedek), not the beginning of the Church. Henceforth, the Apostles proclaimed the good tidings “in country and town”, preaching and baptizing and appointing shepherds, imparting the priesthood to them whom they discerned were worthy to minister, as Saint Clement writes in his first Epistle to the Corinthians.

Yet to make this point clearer, we should first emphasise that the Church (Heb. – Qahal /Gk. – εκκλησία) is not a human institution, or an organisation of any sort, but is a relationship. The Greeks of Asia Minor through their folkloric expressions have helped explain this relational phenomenon over successive generations, for they refer to the Church as the gathering of peoples within one communion joined to God in a direct relationship. The exact phrase they would use is as such:

“τών σύνολον τών άνθωπων έν κοινωνία μέ τών θεὠ”.

In simpler terms, they would normally call the Church, the gathering of the faithful (τών σύνολον τώ πιστών). The principle behind their expression was grounded within their perception of the Church not being an institution of any sort, but was a physical relationship between God the Creator, and humanity as the created beings who are the elect stewards representing all of creation. Yet to enter into this direct and personal relationship with God, one has to first accept God’s invitation to salvation in all sincerity and modesty without any compulsion in faith. Furthermore this undertaking is a call to salvation through ongoing repentance and a whole-hearted commitment to remain joined to God.

In effect the Anatolian Greek concept of Church (εκκλησία) as a relational or communal reality, was that those who answered the invitation, were called (καλέω) from (εκ) amongst the multitudes that comprise the world (κόσμου) of humanity, to aspire to a greater transcendental cause and reality. Naturally many are called, but few actually respond, thus the faithful were termed the “elect” (εκκλησία – Church). In effect the Anatolian Greeks were playing on the etymology of the word Church (εκκλησία) to explain very basic elements of ecclesiology (that is the doctrine/theology of the Church):

εκκλησία (The Church)

κλήσις (Invitation)

εκ-καλέω (To invite or call from or out of)

However, they would explain their analogy further, by citing that because the Church is a relationship and thus a link with the living God, that God does not compel people to enter into this communal reality, but allows all to enter or not enter according to their free-will, since the journey of faith is detrimental to those who are lukewarm about their calling, and thus holds no benefit for one who is unstable and negative in their approach to life.

Nonetheless they would express that the communal reality of what the Church is, is manifested in three key ways: Firstly through the gift of the Holy Eucharist and the mystery (sacrament) of baptism which provides a physical link and expression of the unity of the believers as one gathering, while at the same time their direct link with God and the saints. The second was their assertion that the Church is the relationship between God and creation, because creation bears indelibly the fingerprints of God’s creative activity within the universe, or as some would call it, the various “logoi” that is inherent in all things which help them to function according to their designated purpose. The third point they would raise, is that the Church is merely an expression of the inner Trinitarian Church. That is, the internal communal relationship between the Three Persons of the One Godhead. Hence the Church is basically a manifestation of the Trinitarian relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one undividable union.

Finally the Greeks of Asia Minor would then make reference to salvation history as cited within Scripture, by noting that the covenants made between God and Adam and Eve, or with Noah, or with Abraham, or with Moses, or the people who would constitute Israel, or send messages through the Prophets, represented the Church throughout time and how that relationship between God and humanity developed or changed. Therefore the Church was a relationship of love and life that God had always intended to share with humanity, when He had first created Adam and Eve before their falling away, and that every good thing within this relationship should be shared in common. Hence the preaching of the Gospel has not only been a message of faith within world history, but one that also strives to manifest faith within worldly reality through works of faith like almsgiving, charity and so forth.

The feastday signifies the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon the whole world in order to allow each person to come into direct contact with God’s invitation to salvation and enter into the Church. For within the Church, by living its liturgical and prayer life, each believer will have the opportunity to unlock the charismatic gifts that the Lord had bestowed upon them, for the benefit of all within the Christian communion and the wider community of humanity (cf. 1 Cor. 12).

Charismatic Gifts and the Speaking of Different Languages (Tongues)

This in a roundabout way brings us to the charismatic gifts that Christ spoke of in Jn. 16:5-15 which would be bestowed upon all the faithful and particularly upon the Apostles. On this point St. Paul explains to us in 1 Corinthians 12, that the bestowal of charismatic gifts was for the benefit and edification of all members within the Christian (Church) communion and thus should be shared in common, since each person received a different gift to share. For some as St. Paul notes may have the gift of healing, while others have the gift of teaching and so forth. However, all these gifts from God was to assist the communion of the faithful in their endeavour towards their journey of salvation, and subsequently give them strength, reassurance and courage in this difficult task.

Yet through the communion of the believers the world would also benefit, since the charismatic gifts were the testimony to God’s presence, saving power and love within the world. It was to bear witness to the Gospel and encourage others to seek faith and repentance, and to remind all people of their own finiteness within the whole scheme of the universe, where God reigns supreme. The only catch to this of course, lay within the mindset and attitude of the believers in their approach to spiritual life, and how seriously they took their calling.

Hence the more open a believer is to the workings of the Holy Spirit, the more numerous and powerful the charismatic gifts can be bestowed upon them or unlocked within them, and thus God can work through them for the benefit of their souls and others. The less receptive a believer is to the workings of the Spirit, the more of an obstacle they prove to God, Who is seeking to work through them, and manifest grace upon them and the communion of believers as well as the world. To sort of paraphrase St. Seraphim of Sarov, if you wish to save yourself and others, become a saint and you will save many souls because you will serve as a beacon of salvific grace.

Nevertheless of the numerous charismatic gifts that God has bestowed upon humanity, the feastday of Pentecost and the unusual events that surround it, manifest particularly the gift of speaking in languages which marks out this particular event. For as many of the liturgical hymns of Pentecost exclaim, is that the simplicity of the fishermen, the Apostles that is, were made wise by the Paraclete, and enabled them to speak in numerous languages (Γλώσσες) with great eloquence, so that as many people as possible could come to hear and learn about the Gospel.

In Acts 2:1-31 which provides a fairly detailed account, we observe that the Apostles are gathered together within one place and with one accord (v. 1), that is in one communion, when they received the gift of speaking in different languages (v. 3) as the original Greek states. Quite often the word γλώσσα is translated as tongue, but in the context of the narrative and its grammar, it means languages. As a consequence of the Feast of Pentecost taking place, numerous Jews and converts to Judaism coming from many different nations had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the giving of the Mosaic Law. Yet with the bestowal of being capable to speak in different languages, the Apostles were able to attest to the fact that the Law had been fulfilled through the ministry of the Messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thus their charismatic gift was able to reach a broad and diverse audience of many different nationalities, for the edification of all those who heard them, who were surprised that a bunch of illiterate “Galilean Jews” who come from the “backwaters” of Jewish society, were preaching in their own language. A testimony in itself of the power and truth of what God had taught them through Jesus. Of course some dismissed them as being drunk, but as St. Peter points out in Acts 2:15 that it was only the third hour of the day, which corresponds with around nine o’clock in the morning when pubs, inns and taverns were closed (and had remained so from the previous night, especially on the eve of a feast of religious observance).

The point that needs to be emphasised here, is that the charismatic gift of speaking in different languages served a key purpose, because the languages uttered by the Apostles were not incomprehensible gibberish as in today’s so-called modern day phenomenon. The Apostles spoke in actual, and comprehensible, languages and dialects that people of the time spoke, read and wrote in, as attested to within the Scriptural account. There was no need for an interpreter or some specially designated charismatic leader who could “understand” or “explain” what was said by the Apostles, because through the workings of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles, God communicated directly to all the peoples who had gathered for the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem that very day.

This very point corresponds with what St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 about the role of charismatic gifts, in that it is for the edification of all members of the Church and to assist those who are outside it, to come towards knowledge, wisdom and love of God. Hence the Apostles were communicating God’s words within comprehensible languages, so that people may be exposed to the Gospel and come to knowledge, wisdom and love of God. This undertaking was not an individual effort, nor an attempt to disperse people, but was a communal effort by the Apostles with God’s grace, to gather the people together in one accord. This is therefore the purpose of charismatic gifts, to bring people together and join them to God, offering their commitment, which we are told in Acts 2:41 numbered some three thousand.[3]

Therefore God is not the author of chaos causing the people to disperse, that is why the devil is called the diabolos (διά-βολος) which means the one who tears apart, or Satan which means to serve as a stumbling stone, frustrating others in attaining a goal.

Yet the speaking of different languages bears another point of significance, which is re-teaching humanity the language of Divine Wisdom, something lost through humanity’s arrogance and rebellion when constructing the world’s second city with the Tower of Babel at its epicentre in Genesis 11. The purpose of the Tower as seen from the account was based on two key premises, the first was disbelief in God’s promise to never inundate the world by flood, thus the tower was to act as an insurance policy. The second point was that the people who sought to build Babel, intended it as a cheap and showy form of shameless self-advertisement, so that they could make a “name” for themselves and to project it unto other generations. In effect their action was one of self-worship, which is another, but the most dangerous form of idolatry, because it has egocentric pride as its foundations, not showing due respect or thanksgiving to God.

God’s own response by creating different languages for the people of Babel to speak, and thus distract them from their arrogant undertaking, was an act of pedagogical love. Firstly the chastisement of those leading this rebellious act by God’s creative response in turning the one human language into the “babble” of different languages, since the people had turned away from speaking and thinking according to divine wisdom and piety. Instead they had thought and spoken in terms contrary to their reason of being, that is as godlike beings. Consider it, the people did not trust in God’s own promise to them, but had more faith in their own delusions and arrogance. Hence it would not be an exaggeration to say that even God’s chastisement of this unsound phronema[4] was a form of mercy. On the other hand God’s response also served as a preventative measure from redirecting humanity from becoming spiritually worse.[5]

Babel of course represents the development of technology and civilisation, and the breaking with the cycles of the natural world by humanity, which quite often put it at odds with the environment. Yet this could be explained symbolically from the point of view that Babel represents political and economic establishments characterised by arrogance, greed and love for power. Under such circumstances God is often ignored in the process and is thus denied the due respect owed to Him, while the earth we inhabit which He created, is utilised as our personal property to dispose of however we wish. Not only that, but that fellow human beings are in like fashion, dealt with as if they were commodities for our own personal use and service, thus explaining the foundations for all wars, political strife, and socio-economic problems throughout all ages of human history.

As a consequence, the day of Pentecost marks God reuniting all nations and peoples, willing to accept His calling through His Apostles, who thanks to the Spirit, are speaking in the language of the Gospel, thus overcoming all linguistic, cultural and ethnic barriers that had developed since the time of Babel. It is for this purpose the charismatic gift of speaking in different languages were granted to the Apostles, so that the language of the Gospel may be known in every human language of the world, unhindered and without need of translators. So that all may be edified and have the opportunity to hear God’s calling and have the same equal opportunity to find salvation.[6]

Trinitarian Revelation

Within the Orthodox Church there is no specific feastday, in the literal sense, which marks the celebration of the Holy Trinity, since all Three Persons of the Holy Trinity are God and take equal part in their Godly providential action in relation to the world, therefore all feastdays are a celebration of the Holy Trinity. Yet within the liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church, the day which is viewed as appropriate for such a celebration, and has been the practice for many centuries, is the feastday of Pentecost which is also known as “Trinity Day” or “Descent of the Holy Spirit”. Yet these two titles represent two very distinct themes, that of the Trinitarian action within the world and revealed at Pentecost, whereby the descent of the Holy Spirit, proceeds from the Father and shed forth by God the Son (Acts 2:33).

Whereas, the other theme, is specifically concerned with celebrating and honouring the Holy Spirit, whose commemoration occurs on the Monday which directly proceeds from Pentecost Sunday, and is known as “Spirit Monday”. As a consequence Pentecost in liturgical terms is a feast whose duration spans two days. The import of this significance, stems from the fact that this feastday marks the fullness of Trinitarian revelation within the world, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and subsequently is the sign of God’s final act of self-disclosure to the world (creation). That is, the descent of the Holy Spirit to guide all of humanity into the journey of wisdom and self-discovery which is known as faith, and serves as a witness to the wider world, bringing all into communion with the Holy Trinity. Not surprisingly, much of the hymnography of the feast revolves around Trinitarian dogma, the very core belief of Christianity.

In more specific terms, the Trinitarian action of Pentecost differs in each Divine Person’s role within this great event, for as a Sticheron in the 8th tone from Great Vespers indicates that; God the Father who is the Creator of the visible and invisible world does all things through the Son with the participation of the Holy Spirit; God the Son, the Redeemer through Whom we have come to know the Father, and through Whom the Holy Spirit came into the world; while God the Spirit and Comforter, proceeding from the Father and resting in the Son, gives life to all things.

The meaning of this, is simply that Pentecost manifested and revealed to the world the grace-given knowledge of the Trinitarian mystery as One God, yet consisting of Three distinct Persons who are indivisible and consubstantial (equal), united in one common effort, without subsuming or overriding the other members of this communion, nor becoming subservient to the others.

Naturally some may contend that at Christ’s baptism within the Jordan, by St. John the Forerunner, that this Trinitarian revelation had previously occurred. This is true, but discerning from all Scriptural indications it was a revelation perceptible to St. John who was the last of the Old Testament Prophets, and whom Christ referred to as the second Elijah. The pouring out of God’s Spirit upon all flesh had not occurred at this particular point, since Christ said that He had to depart so that the Spirit may be bestowed upon all flesh. Hence the Trinitarian action at Christ’s baptism was one perceptible to the few, and accessible only to the external senses, for St John the Baptist heard the voice of the Father, saw the Son before him, and saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Christ in the physical form of a dove.

Whereas, this contrasts sharply to the day of Pentecost, whereby the grace of the Holy Spirit is poured forth upon humanity; enlightening the entire being of man redeemed by the Son of God and bringing him to deification. According to the extent of our potentialities, we in effect receive the possibility of seeing and experiencing God, and of participating in the Kingdom of grace of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Consider the enlightenment of the Apostles on the actual day as described in the Book of Acts, this event bore witnesse to not only an external perception of the working of grace by seeing the Spirit come down like tongues of fire, but experiencing their own internal transformation and then being able to preach in numerous languages.

Nor were these things confined to a Prophetic figure who dwelled in obscurity like the Prophets of old or like John the Baptist, but simple men of moderate or minimal learning who dwelled and worked within the world. The Apostles were followed by other peoples of many nations present within Jerusalem at that time, comprising of different socio-economic stratas and experiences, who were baptised also with fire and the Spirit, just as they had received. No distinctions or discrimination was made between those who sought to learn and be baptised, no preferential treatment, all received the message of the Gospel and those who responded were not turned away, for the gifts of the Spirit was for all to partake of. Gone were the days of the Old Testament, for even St. John the Forerunner cited that Christ will baptise with fire[7] and the Spirit.

It is for these reasons that Pentecost marks the final work of Christ’s earthly ministry which usher in the first beginning of the messianic age of the Kingdom of God, mystically present in His Church, and called to ministering to the whole world.

Customs & Liturgical Practices

Originally, in liturgical and cultural practice, Pentecost marked the end of the Paschal period prior to the advent of the Paschal Apodosis (Conclusion) and the Feast of the Martyrs (which later became the Feast of All-Saints). The custom though is still preserved within various Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches whereby the fifty days proceeding from Pascha would be days of non-fasting and numerous celebrations ending with the Feast of Pentecost before proceeding into the fast of the Holy Apostles and thus ending the moveable cycle of feasts.

The reason for this custom was to “recover” from the strict asceticism of the 50 days leading to Pascha which consisted of the weeks of preparation, Great Lent and Holy Week. Yet it was also an effort to balance the spiritual life of the faithful by not enforcing strict and austere forms of asceticism over the full 101 day period, since the Church did not wish to push the faithful too far and cause them to “snap” from spiritual “burnout”. Thus time was allowed for celebration, since Pascha was the fruit of spiritual struggle to which the faithful endeavoured towards day and night for the duration of the year. The opinion was that the faithful should symbolically have a foretaste of what the eternal banquet and rest meant, and that it was to this ceaseless cycle of feasting to which all aspired to; since the present world was the place of suffering, sacrifice, testing and struggle to pass through the mystery of our own crosses, an opportunity to be prepared to enter the relief of the celestial life close to God.

Nevertheless as time went pass, and the development of the cycle of feasts continued, while people abused the paschal period of feasting taking awful liberties, the Church decided to reinstate the usual fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays to maintain spiritual vigilance, with the exception of Bright Week and the week after Pentecost.

Within the English-speaking world, particularly within Britain, the feast of Pentecost became known as the feast of Whitsunday. It is believed the reason for this name stems from the fact that Pentecost, Pascha, and certain other festal Sundays were set aside for baptisms within the Divine Liturgy. As such, and reflecting the illumination and purity of divine action within the world, the churches would be decorated in white, while the clergy and those who were to be baptised were vested in white garments. Hence one can hear the term in the English speaking world “the Whitsundays”, that is the “White Sundays” whereby many will turn from the darkness of ignorance, and be baptised into the light and purity of divine wisdom as they descend into the baptismal mystery of crucifying their old identity, and rising out of the waters of forgiveness and purification to become partakers within Christ’s Resurrection and new life.

Yet within this tradition, Pentecost became the main day of baptism and was called the Whitsunday, due to the warmer weather experienced within Northern Europe than that of Pascha, but also from a theological perspective it was to link with the belief of being baptised in the Spirit on the day which marks the gift of the Spirit upon humanity. Thus within the British Christian tradition, Whitsunday is a day of full Trinitarian revelation and call towards our own ministry of healing (therapeutic theosis), and confession of faith to the world, hence following the Apostles’ commission to go forth and live the Gospel. For each member who were baptised in Christ through the Holy Spirit has put on the wedding garment of Christ and has been joined to His Church, and come into union with God the Father as adoptive children by grace.

As for the custom of adorning churches and houses with green branches, leaves and some flowers date back to the Old Testament practices of the Jews, but within the Christian context represented the life-giving, renewing and regenerative power of the Holy Spirit which helps to sustain all things of creation and cause them to blossom forth. The wearing of green liturgical vestments upon this day mimicked this practice but develops during the medieval period, since the original practice was to wear white vestments that resemble the pure white of doves, a symbol of the Spirit. Yet red vestments and red flowers were also utilised (and still are in some Christian traditions) to represent the fire of the Holy Spirit and contrast against the greenery used to adorn houses and churches.

One final custom worthy of note was the baking of various pastries and breads as a celebration of the firstfruits of the grain harvest, and churches would be adorned with wheat husks. The origin of this seems to have been a continuation from the Jewish practice (much like the use of greenery) of the Feast of Weeks.

Scriptural Readings

Vespers: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Joel 2:23-32; Ezekiel 36:24-28.

Matins: John 20:19-23.

Pentecost Sunday Divine Liturgy: Acts 2:1-31; John 7:37-52, 8:12.

Pentecost Monday Divine Liturgy: Ephesians 5:8-19; Matthew 18: 10-20.


To gain a greater appreciation of the feast of Pentecost and the various themes raised within it celebration, a brief examination of the hymnography provides excellent summaries and theological insight into this great event and its implications. The majority of English translations utilised here, and the ordering of hymnographical texts are drawn from the work of John Baggley, a Roman Catholic who has authored a book[8] on Orthodox festal icons and the feasts to which they belong to. His exposition is a very balanced and Orthodox presentation which is written for a Non-Orthodox audience, so that others may attain an appreciation for Orthodoxy’s rich spiritual heritage.[9]

Apolytikion of Pentecost – Fourth Plagal Tone

Blessed are You, O Christ our God, who made fishermen all-wise, sending upon them the Holy Spirit and, through them, netting the world. O Loving One, glory to You.

Kontakion – Tone 8.

When the Most High came down he confused the tongues, divided the nations; but when he parted the tongues of fire, he called all to unity, and with one voice we glorify the all-holy Spirit.


Give swift and stable comfort to your servants, Jesus, in the despondency of our spirits; do not part from our souls in troubles, do not be far from our minds in perils, but ever anticipate us. Be near us, be near you, who are everywhere; as you are also always with your Apostles, so unite yourself, O compassionate, with those who long for you, that united to you we may hymn and glorify your All-holy Spirit.

The following Sticheron is a basic summary of the differing themes presented within the Feast of Pentecost:

The Holy Spirit provides every gift: He inspires prophecy, perfects the priesthood, grants wisdom to the illiterate, makes simple fishermen to become wise theologians, and establishes perfect order in the organisation of the Church. Wherefore, O Comforter, equal in nature and majesty with the Father and the Son, glory to You! – A Sticheron from Saturday’s Great Vespers.

Amongst those key themes is the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations and hopes which the Prophets of old often spoke of and sought to inspire their fellow brethren who often ignored them or passed them over as insane. Thus Pentecost is a day of fulfillment of a promise made by God:

That which was proclaimed in the Prophets and in the Law of old hath been fulfilled; for on this day the grace of the Divine Spirit is poured on all the faithful. – From Ode 1 of Matins

Similarly, the gift of the Holy Spirit is described as a fulfillment of Christ’s personal promise:

Thou didst say unto Thy disciples, O Christ: Tarry ye in Jerusalem till ye be clothed with power on high, and I will send you another Comforter like unto Me, Who is My Spirit and the Spirit of the Father, in Whom ye shall be established. – From Ode 3 of Matins

The events that occurred in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, are celebrated with reference to the revelation of the Holy Trinity:

Today all the nations beheld strange things in the city of David, when the Holy Spirit descended in fiery tongues, as Luke, the herald of things divine, declared; for he said: As the disciples of Christ were gathered together, there came a sound as of mighty wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting; and all began to articulate strange and foreign words, doctrines strange and new, strange and new teachings of the Holy Trinity. – A Sticheron from Matins

The gift of languages, of wisdom and of teaching, are often mentioned – along with the accusations that the strange behaviour of the Apostles was due to drunkenness:

O Lord, when You sent down your Spirit upon the assembled apostles, the Hebrews were struck with awe as they heard them speak in many languages, as the Spirit inspired them. They knew them to be illiterate and now saw them wise, speaking divine truths and bringing Gentiles to believe. Wherefore we also cry out to You: “O Lord who have appeared on earth and saved us from error, glory to You!” – From the Litia at Saturday’s Great Vespers

When the Apostles spoke eloquently concerning the divine and mighty deeds, the Spirit’s power, whereby the Trinity is known as the one God or our Fathers, was thought to be drunkenness by them that believed not. – From Ode 7 of Matins

Worship of the Holy Trinity becomes possible as a result of the divine revelation at Pentecost. The hymnographers relish the wonder of this revelation:

All things bow their knee before the Comforter,

And the Offspring of the Father, and the Consubstantial Father;

For they acknowledge in Three Persons,

The, One Infallible, Unapproachable and Timeless Essence;

For the grace of the Spirit hath shined forth illumination. – From Ode 4 of Matins

The story of the Tower of Babel forms a point of comparison for the Pentecost events: one brought division and confusion, the other brings reconciliation and harmony:

In days of old, pride brought confusion of tongues to the builders of the tower of Babel, but now the diversity of tongues enlightened the minds and gave knowledge for the glory of God. There, God punished infidels for their sin, while here Christ enlightened fishermen through His Spirit; there, the confusion of tongues was for the sake of vengeance, while here there was variety so that voices could be joined in unison for the salvation of our souls. – Aposticha from Saturday Great Vespers

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit leads to life in the Church through Baptism, and there are many texts which link these aspects of the Feast. Baptism is rarely mentioned directly, but the references to water, fire and Spirit leave no doubt as to their sacramental reference:

Coming down to those on earth, the Holy Spirit’s spring was seen in the form of fiery streams apportioned spiritually to all, as it bedewed and enlightened the Lord’s Apostles. And thus, the fire became a cloud bedewing them, filling them with light, and raining fire flames on them. And through them, grace hath been vouchsafed to us by fire and water in very truth. Behold, the Comforter’s light is come and hath illumined the whole world. – Second sessional hymn from Matins

Illumination and sanctification are continuing aspects of the work of the Spirit in the Church, bringing successive generations into the fullness of the Trinitarian life:

The Father is Light; the Word is Light; and the Holy Spirit is Light, Who was sent to the Apostles in the form of fiery tongues; and thus through Him all creation is illuminated and guided to worship the Holy Trinity. – Exaposteilarion from Matins


As mentioned earlier, the feastday of Pentecost marks two particular themes which are represented within the two icons of Pentecost, that of the Hospitality of Abraham, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The reason for the first icon is that the exposition of the dogma of the Holy Trinity is the first fundamental principle which underpins Pentecost. To express this, the Orthodox Church took as its iconographical expression, the Biblical narrative of three men appearing to Abraham by the Oak of Mambre in Genesis 18. The three men, from some of the earliest examples within iconography, have been depicted as winged angels to indicate their heavenly origins, for according to the Scriptural witness of this historical event, we have the first appearance of God to man (Theophany). Thus signifying the existence of a personal relationship and promise of redemption, between humanity and God, something which Adam and Eve originally knew when they were created as tenants of God’s earth.

Furthermore, within the context of the feast, the icon links the first manifestation of the Trinity in the Old Testament and the final theophanic manifestation within the New Testament at Pentecost. Hence the idea of a promise being made and the fulfillment of that promise, or if you will, covenant (Heb. Berith/Gk. Διαθήκη).

The original iconographic depiction, usually showed the Three Angels sitting around a table under the shade of the Oak, with Abraham and Sarah attending to them, while their house was in the background, and quite often a servant was slaughtering a calf in the foreground. The scene was explained in three ways by early Church Fathers as, an indirect visitation by the Holy Trinity through angelic representatives, or as a visitation by the Holy Trinity itself, or the appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity accompanied by two angels who represented the other Trinitarian Persons.

The thought with regards to the last interpretation, was that since each Person of the Trinity possesses the fullness of the Godhead, the presence of the Son with two angels can be taken as a representation of the Trinity. Whatever interpretation one utilised, the meaning and significance of the event is clear, that Abraham saw the Trinity as far as any human can, and greet It as a close and benevolent friend.

As to how the Three Angels were depicted often varied with dogmatic interpretation and iconographic development. In earlier examples of icons, the Angels are grouped together, sitting equal to each other at the table (isocephalous principle), to indicate their total shared equality and yet remain distinct as Three Angels. At times such icons would show the Angels wearing the same clothes to reemphasise the total shared equality, while other icons would have the Angels sitting equally but wearing slightly different garments to represent their distinction.

Later on within iconography, the table would be structured like a pyramid which was headed by one Angel to signify the Father. Yet later on the icon shows the table as round and the Angels sitting around it, to show that unlike a rectangular table, there is no “head” or “place of honour”, but all sit equally within a circle. The significance of a circle is simply that it is not a “regular shape” because it has neither a beginning nor an end, thus expressing the eternal character of the Heavenly Trinity. Yet at the same time, represent the equality and unity of each Trinitarian Person, bound together within an unbroken communion.

Rublev, and other contemporary iconographers of his era, began to focus entirely on the Three Angels within some of their works and leave out the presence of Abraham and Sarah. Within the background they would leave the oak within the scene to indicate the origin of the work’s link to a historical event. The objective of these iconographers was to tease out the theological significance of the Trinitarian manifestation, the inner Trinitarian communal relationship, the Church and references to the Holy Eucharist.

Within the Rublev icon of the Trinity, the table is set with bread and wine within a chalice symbolising the Holy Eucharist, being blessed by an Angel dressed as Christ. The Angels are all leaning inwards and forming a circle to represent the eternality of the inner Trinitarian life of Three Unique Persons united within one communion, but remaining distinct, neither being subsumed by each other or subservient to the other Trinitarian members. The indication is that the Church, just like the Anatolian Greeks with their analogies expressed, the Church militant (that is within the world) is a reflection and communal reality that has its origins within the Trinitarian Church.

This reality is expressed in the gestures and actions of the Three Angels who incline their heads to one another showing signs of love, humility and reverence, within a motionless peace, and the world around them continuously in a state of movement. The immobility of course indicating the omnipotence, omnipresence, immutability and unmoveable glory and peace of the Trinitarian union that remains constant while the world may be in a state of constant flux, but here we observe that there is a firm foundation which will not change and yet remains as an internal mystery by which we only catch glimpses of. The grouping of the Angels upon the icon reflects the Nicene Creed, from left to right, since in iconographic tradition the left is the place of honour: I believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Correspondingly the very colours utilised also indicate the differences between these Persons. The somewhat vague colour of the clothing of the Angel on the left, indicates the impossibility of depicting God the Father. Whereas the dual colours of burgundy and blue which represents Christ, indicates His perfect Divine and Human natures as the Theanthropos, while the Holy Spirit is clothed with a green cloak to symbolise His life-giving and renewing power. The strong colours that characterise both Christ and the Holy Spirit indicate how they have been manifested and seen by humanity, and thus can be depicted due to the various events of Scriptural history like Christ’s baptism, or Pentecost. The common colour in many of these icons is blue which is worn by all members of the Trinity, and remind us of the bluish-green divine light that is shown engulfing Christ in icons of the Resurrection, the Dormition of the Theotokos, Transfiguration and Ascension. Hence the blue cloaks within these icons of the Trinity symbolise the divinity of all Three Persons and therefore their commonality and unity.

The other icon which refers to the specific event that characterises Pentecost, is the one that depicts the descent of the Holy Spirit, and is put out on display on Spirit Monday. The usual depiction shows the Apostles seated within the house that they were dwelling in at the time in Jerusalem, patiently awaiting Christ’s promise of the Paraclete bestowing its help upon them. At the very centre is usually a gap to show that Christ had ascended into Heaven and no longer was sitting with them in dialogue, but had made room for the Paraclete to come and dwell amongst the Apostles.

Within these icons one can see the Apostles sitting in a semi-circle facing us, but still inclined to one another. The significance is threefold; firstly it marks the beginning of their mission and ministry to carry on Christ’s teaching, and for that matter their own spiritual journey towards salvation has not been completed. That is, the circle is not complete because on a personal level they were still in the process of deification, but to also mark the beginning of the Messianic age which will only be completed upon the Eighth Day of Creation, the Day of Completion and Fulfillment, better known to us as Christ’s Second Coming or Parousia.

The inclination of the Apostles to one another expresses their unity and collegiality, and not showing one Apostle to be greater than another, all have received the gift and authority of the Holy Spirit as shown with the flames above their heads. Yet the Apostles’ bodies and eyes have the tendency to be focused upon us as if calling us to join their communion, which is a reflection of the Trinitarian communion, and thus the objective of ecclesial reality. The consequence of which, is that nothing is done within the Church by one sole leader, but in consultation as a synod, as reflected by the Council of Jerusalem as spoken of in the Book of Acts, and subsequently in Christian history by local and Ecumenical councils.

In some other icons this collegiality is depicted by showing the Apostles sitting or congregated within a circle. In some icons, the iconographer shows the Theotokos sitting in the place of Christ at the centre of the Apostles to represent the Church as our mother, just as Mary served as the Theotokos within the flesh. It is not to show that she is equal with God, but that she is the mother of every believer.

The elderly male figure at the base of the icon represents the “cosmos” or if you will, all the nations to whom the Apostles must carry the Gospel to, as signified by the Twelve Scrolls that he holds within his mantle. The scrolls of course indicate the Gospel but are symbolic of a letter of commission that an authority gives to an employee which sets out their task and duties. These of course were set forth by Christ Himself during His earthly ministry, but are now items of faith and Church governance which are now shown as scrolls. Some of the Apostles or all of them in various iconographic versions, are holding these scrolls in their hands, to show that what they have received is not of their own making, but that which God has entrusted to them to transmit.

The blue-green light at the top centre of icons represents the Divine Light of the Holy Trinity in action, and in the feastday’s case, more specifically the Holy Spirit descending upon the Apostles. The indication is that the eternal which was and is before time and creation, is now violently penetrating into linear time and human history, like a rush of wind as the Scriptural accounts refer to it, and not coming in all humility as it would normally do. Instead it announces its presence and its work. Iconographers have often depicted this descent into worldly time as small lines or “tongues” of fire emanating from the divine light which is within the celestial realms, coming directly upon the heads of the Apostles. These lines or tongues usually bear the same blue-green colour while others utilise red and oranges to show the peaceful action of the Trinity, comes in as a fire within our world, since our reality struggles to cope with the power of loving grace.

Dedicated to the beloved memory of the late spiritual father, Fr. George Kalodimos, and to my own great grandparents Vasilios and Zinovia on whom the teachings of the Spirit were inscribed on their hearts, and like so many of their fellow Anatolian Greeks, endured exile and hardships, rather than to renounce their faith nor their ethnic identity.

[1] Wholistic/Universal/Entire.

[2] Apostolic because it is encharged with the mission of bearing witness to the Gospel but if we put it in another way, it also means patristic. That is, the Church is of the fathers and mothers who lead the Church in every age, and seek to preserve the teaching of the Gospel which they received from their predecessors, so that they can faithfully transmit it to the next generation. In other words, each generation of faithful are dependent upon each other, whereby the present generation is the disciple of the preceding generation, while the forthcoming generation will be our disciples. The task of the generation which teaches the Faith, is that they must serve as faithful mentors, guiding their disciples in all due care to the best of their ability. Thus we see within the Orthodox Church the importance of the spiritual father or mother, since they are the mentors of the faithful, hence reaffirming the apostolic nature of the Church, since Christ Himself discerned and chose the Disciples who would best serve His ministry.

[3] Within the prevailing culture of the time, this figure would naturally refer only to the men present there, since they were the heads of their households and responsible for the welfare of their fellow household members, including extended kin, servants and slaves.

[4] Behaviour, attitude and mindset.

[5] St Augustine of Hippo comments in The City of God (16.4) that: “As the tongue is the instrument of domination, in it pride was punished, so that man, who refused to understand God when He gave His commands. Thus was dissolved their conspiracy, because each man withdrew from those who could not understand and banded with those whose speech he found intelligible. So the nations were divided according to their languages and scattered over the face of the earth, as seemed good to God, who accomplished this in hidden ways that we cannot understand”. While with regards to the events of Pascha, Pentecost and the Tower of Babel, Elder Photios of Mysia remarks that, “the Resurrection had as its purpose to overcome the effects of Adam’s sin and subsequently humanity’s gradual estrangement from Eden, whereas Pentecost sought to overcome the divisions created by Babel’s sin”.

[6] As opposed to belonging to some exclusive sect or cult, whose members claim that they have the gift of speaking in tongues, yet require an “inspired” interpreter of dubious standing to make sense of the gibberish that they speak. If the Lord wanted to bestow the gift of languages, given historical and Scriptural witness, He would not assign a gift that was incomprehensible to human ears, because He wishes to provide us all the opportunity to accept or reject His truth. There has never been anything in between, therefore He would not be so exclusivist with the truth. As to whether we could handle the truth and accept it, then that is another point altogether.

[7] Fire often represented the power of the Spirit as well as the zealous power of faith which springs forth from coming into communion with God and living a life dedicated to God’s service. The image is rather symbolic in that one can see the flame of hope and faith melting away the coldness of our hearts.

[8] Festival Icons for the Christian Year, by John Baggley, SVS Press: Crestwood, New York, 2000.

[9] Nevertheless quite a pleasant read, and compliments many of the other excellent publications on the same subject matter like: The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, SVS Press: Crestwood, New York, 1999.

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