Mysteriously and Incomprehensibly (VIDEO)

A Film On the Feast of Pentecost

The film presented here, on the great feast of the Pentecost, was made by His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), with Studio Neophyte, which produces films and programs for those who believe, and those who are seeking God, offering numerous videos on the feasts of the Church year, the saints, theology, and much more.

Why is the feast of Pentecost also called the birthday of the Church? What Christian Holy places have preserved the memory of the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit on the Lord’s disciples? Why did the celebrations of this feast in the Holy Land last for three days? In this film, Met. Hilarion invites you to ascend mount Zion, to visit Hebron, to see the main cathedral of Rome and visit the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra...

And 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 (Acts 2:1-4).

On the feast of Pentecost, also known as the day of the Holy Trinity, we remember the event which culminated the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth. On this day, the Lord sent to His disciples the Holy Spirit, descending upon them in the form of tongues of fire. The mystery of Pentecost abides in the Church from that moment, giving people the possibility of feeling the breath of the Spirit of God, of hearing the homily in their own tongue, of receiving the Gospel news in those conceptions and ideas in which this news is available to them.

Coming to Jerusalem from other lands and countries, they understood every word, penetrating not only into their minds, but into their hearts. “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?” That day, as the author of the book of Acts, the apostle Luke writes, about three thousand people were united to the Church. It was the beginning of the salvific path which the Church treads even until today, across the whole Earth, turning to Christ, and teaching thousands and millions of good people, speaking in various languages.

In the fourth century, on the site of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, on the site of the Mt. Zion upper room, Queen Helena built a small church, which, unfortunately, has not survived. Today’s Zion chapel was erected during the time of the Crusaders. On the first floor of this building is found the tomb of King David, which St. Peter mentions, addressing those devout Jews who were astonished at hearing how the apostles spoke of the mighty acts of God in various languages. “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear.”

On Pentecost, all men, wherever they lived, were to go to the Jerusalem Temple. It was one of the main feasts of the religious year. On the fiftieth day after the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, the Lord gave them the Law on Mt. Sinai, which was supposed to make them “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation,” bearing the light of the true faith to all peoples and tribes. In memory of the Law being given to man under the open sky, the Temple was adorned on the feast with greenery. This ancient custom is preserved in the New Testament Church, and Orthodox churches in Rus’ gather birch branches on Pentecost.

The Old Testament jubilee, the year of release, was a foreshadowing of the feast of Pentecost. According to the Sinai Law, a jubilee was declared every fifty years: People were returned their possessions, debtors were forgiven their debts, and slaves were set free. The jubilee was a year of summing up, when people gave account to God and one another for how they framed their lives, and restructured it more in accord with the commandments of God. The Jubilee served as a symbol of man’s life in the future age, where there is no social inequality, where there are no slaves or masters, lenders or debtors.

In Christianity, Pentecost is filled with new content. It is the feast of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, Who comes in the place of Christ, Who has ascended into Heaven. The era of jubilee has come for Christians after the Resurrection of Christ—the un-ending fiftieth year, beginning on earth and flowing into eternity. Under the influence of the grace of the Holy Spirit, people radically change, turning from shepherds into prophets, from fishermen into apostles.

Christ preached in a small country; few people saw Him. He wrote nothing with His own hand, and all that He taught was left to the apostles to bring to the world—those unlettered and uneducated men. And to make them able to flourish, the power of God, the transfiguring, invigorating power of the grace of the Holy Spirit was necessary. Only after the Holy Spirit descended upon them, when they began to speak in foreign languages, when they felt within themselves a new strength and new possibilities, did they begin to come to an understanding of their truly universal calling—to preach the Gospel to all men.

The apostle Peter was devoted to Christ, loyal and loving, although impulsive, presumptuous, and weak. Seeing Jesus coming on the waves, he exclaimed, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water;” and he began to walk, but, having doubted and fearing the storm, he began to sink. At the Last Supper he told the Master, “I will lay down my life for thy sake,” and soon denied Him. This is how Peter was during Christ’s life. But after Pentecost he became quite different—brave, spiritually strong, able to give his life for the Gospel.

Thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, the Lord transfigured the life of the apostle Paul. He was a persecutor of the Church of Christ, an enemy of Christians, breathing “threatenings and slaughter” against them; but after Christ appeared to him and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the Sacrament of Baptism, he became the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul, led by the Holy Spirit, traveled extensively, planting communities everywhere, afterwards supporting them with letters, epistles, upon which millions of Christians in our world are spiritually nourished until this day.

“My strength is made perfect in weakness,” Christ said. “We are weak, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit we are strong,” said the apostle Paul. According to the Gospel measure, we are weak, we do not meet the moral and spiritual ideal inscribed for us by the Lord in the Gospel. We are not able to implement the commandments of God in our lives as man, but with the help of the Holy Spirit it becomes possible for us. The Holy Spirit is He Who comes to us and transfigures us, giving us the strength to preach, turning us from weak and infirm people all into apostles and bearers of the Gospel of Christ.

Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the New Testament Church. It completes the long line of feasts connected with the commemoration of all the main events of Christ’s earthly life and His saving work, beginning from Nativity. When He left this earthly life, there remained here on Earth but a handful of His disciples. Then Christianity began to spread throughout the whole Earth, and today there are more than two million Christians in the world.

The miracle of Pentecost consists in that people, divided by nation, race, and tongue, are brought into unity by the action of the Holy Spirit. The division of peoples occurred, according to the Bible, as a result of the chaos at Babel and was a punishment for sin, for trying to reach Heaven by earthly means. The Tower of Babel will forever remain a symbol of building a social system without God: The unanimity of the people in a godless enterprise inescapably leads to divisions among them and the destruction of this very enterprise. The task of the Church has always been to overcome all divisions existing on a human level, and to achieve unity with the help of the grace of the Spirit.

These thoughts, authored by St. Gregory the Theologian, find a reflection in the liturgical texts of the feast: “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.”

Many times during the services on the feast of Pentecost we hear the prayer: “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings, and Giver of life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.” This prayer has exceptional importance in the Orthodox Church, because every service and every rule of prayer begins with it.

Throughout the centuries, the Holy Spirit inspires the Church, its sons and daughters, and now continues to act in the Church as abundantly as in the early Christian Church. As then the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, so that they spoke in tongues understood by those who heard them, so today the Spirit of God touches the heart and tongue of the preacher, that he, overcoming his human infirmity, his weakness, his denseness, might speak the word of God to people, and that the hearts of men might responds to these words.

In the Russian tradition, the feast of Pentecost received the title of “The Day of the Holy Trinity,” inasmuch as the Holy Trinity is glorified in the Divine services this day in a special way. The dogma of the Trinity is most fully articulated in the stichera, “O come ye people, let us worship the tri-personal Godhead.”

The Mystery of the Trinity, preached by all the prophets, apostles, and martyrs, became more tangible on the feast of Pentecost. The Resurrected Son ascends to God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit comes down upon the Church.

It is precisely under the action of the Holy Spirit that all Mysteries of the Church, without exception, are celebrated. When the priest prays at the Liturgy along with the people, calling on God the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine, they become the Body and Blood of Christ. And just as the Galilean fishermen and publicans became apostles under the action of the Holy Spirit, it is precisely by the grace of the Holy Spirit that all ordinations to the sacred orders of deacon, priest, and bishop are celebrated in our day.

The Church Typikon prescribes not to kneel throughout the entire Paschal period, but on the feast of Pentecost believers again stand on bended knee, rendering worship to all the Persons of the Holy Trinity.

The feast of Pentecost, falling always on Sunday, is preceded by the day known in common parlance as “Forefathers Saturday.” On this day, the Church commemorates all the deceased from throughout the ages.

All of human history is recalled in the kneeling prayers, from the creation of the world to all that the Lord accomplished to deliver man from sin. Petitions for the departed occupy a special place in these prayers—for all of our relatives and friends, for all who have died throughout the many generations and centuries before us, not just for the righteous, but for sinners, “for those imprisoned in hell,”—those who more than others are in need of our prayerful intercession.

Some think that only those sinners who have no hope of salvation end up in hell. In the Catholic church they believe that prayer cannot help them, because they are condemned to eternal torment.

But the Orthodox Church holds a different understanding. It teaches that God’s love is active in the fires of hell, only for the righteous it is a source of bliss, but for sinners a source of torment and suffering.

There are no barriers to the mercy of God except man’s free will. In the end, God Himself “killeth, and maketh alive: He bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up,” and therefore, as the Orthodox Church believes, He can remove those dwelling in hell by the prayers of their loved ones, and the prayers of the whole Church. The Church draws its faith in this possibility first of all from the Paschal news of Christ’s victory over death and hell.

The ultimate fate of each of us depends on our own choice—on whose side we will stand: God’s or the devil’s. This choice is made during the course of our earthly lives. For those people, who have already done or not done everything they could, on whom nothing more depends, the main hope for salvation is us—our prayers for them, and our remembering them. The Church therefore prays for the salvation of all, including those imprisoned in hell. For, as St. Silouan the Athonite says, “We should have but one thought—that all would be saved.”

Every year on Pentecost, Andrei Rublev’s “Trinity” icon is transferred from the hall of ancient Russian art in the Tretyakov Gallery to the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi for prayerful veneration. It is one of the most revered icons, not only in the East, but in the West—in the whole Christian world. The icon depicts the Pre-Eternal Council of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit on the creation of the world and its salvation.

Christ points with His finger to the chalice which He will drink, and He Himself, if you trace the outline of the angels, is depicted in the center of a chalice. The holy iconographer is speaking about how the Mystery of the All-Holy Trinity lies in the Eucharist, and in infinite, unspeakable love. The icon expresses the thought of St. Sergius, to whom Rublev dedicated his work: “The view of the Holy Trinity vanquishes the fear of the hateful discord of this world. The image so clearly depicts the unconfusedness, and yet indivisibility of the three hypostases of the one God, that Pavel Florensky exclaimed, “If Rublev’s Trinity exists, it means God exists.”

Dedicating his monastery to the All-Holy Trinity, the Radonezh abbot was thinking about the spiritual and civil unity of the Russian land. He saw that this goal could be reached by the people’s education and upbringing. That is why one of the main obediences of his brethren was the studying and copying of books. Throughout the centuries, within the walls of the Trinity Monastery, chronicles and admonitions were composed… On October 1, 1742, by order of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the seminary was opened in the Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery, soon to be named a lavra. The Moscow Theological Academy, Russia’s largest Orthodox educational institution, was also transferred there. Today, future clergy, theologians, iconographers, and choir directors—everyone called to enlighten people with the light of Christ’s truth—are trained there.

The Lavra was not spared the fate that befell practically every monastery and church in the nation in the twentieth century. The monastery of St. Sergius of Radonezh, becoming at that time the center of spiritual and cultural life, was ordered closed by the Bolsheviks almost immediately. Only in 1946 did the monastic life in the monastery recommence. The return of status to the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra is connected with the names of the Patriarchs of Moscow and All Russia Alexey I and Pimen; during their patriarchal service, the Lavra became the site of Church councils, and the center for the millennial celebration of the Baptism of Rus’.

Patriarchs Alexey I and Pimen are buried in the cave church of the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra’s Dormition Cathedral.

The patriarchs of Moscow and All Russia, and bishops and monastics, upon whose lot it fell to serve in these cruel years of persecution, showed by their example that the grace of the Holy Spirit overcomes all obstacles man creates to preaching the word of God. Even if a man has neither the strength nor courage to continue the apostolic preaching, the grace of the Holy Spirit comes to help him. Our life will be truly Christian if we live by the Holy Spirit, if our whole life will be aimed at that which St. Seraphim of Sarov termed “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.”

The Simbirsk landowner Nicholas Motovilov left a diary of recollections about his conversations with St. Seraphim. When he once asked the elder what is the Holy Spirit and what “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” means, he didn’t answer with words, but Motovilov suddenly saw that Batiushka’s face shone like the sun, and the elder was transfigured before his eyes… Motovilov smelled an unusual fragrance and felt a warmth and unspeakable joy.

This is how the Holy Spirit acts—mysteriously and incomprehensibly; and His activity surpasses all human understanding and all human words. St. Gregory the Theologian says that the mystery of the Trinity is inconceivable to the mind, but is known by experience—God reveals Himself to those who love Him.

The entirety of the Christian life can become a continual feast and year of jubilee, beginning from the moment of Baptism, and having no end. Earthly life can become for the Christian an endless feast of communion with God through the Church and the Sacraments. The annual cycle of Church feasts, like the Sacraments of the Church, facilitates man’s gradual transition from time to eternity, and his gradual renunciation of earthly things and partaking in heavenly things.

Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev)
Translation by Jesse Dominick


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