Would you say that Pentecost is the most important feast after the Nativity of Christ?
I think if you want to start an argument among Orthodox, this question might be a good way!
First of all, there is the feast of feasts, Pascha or Easter, the Feast of the Resurrection, which is higher than all other feasts.
Then there are other feasts, like the Nativity of Christ, or Christmas, the Baptism of Christ, or Theophany, and Trinity Day, or Pentecost. I am not sure what the order of importance is, but since the Nativity of Christ is the Feast of the Incarnation and Pentecost is the Feast of the Holy Trinity and the Holy Spirit, perhaps that is a good order of importance. After all, the two most important revelations to us are the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Holy Trinity.
Nevertheless, perhaps you could argue that the Annunciation, that is the Conception of Christ, is the true feast of the Incarnation. Although it is a feast of the Mother of God, it should therefore precede the Nativity of Christ in importance – the Nativity could not have taken place without the consent of the Mother of God at His Conception. However, in the end, such considerations, though of interest, are certainly not vital for our salvation. The main thing is to come to church for all of these feasts and take part in them, rather than go into such detail.
What does the word Pentecost mean?
First of all, I should say that the most common name for this feast is ‘Trinity Day’, rather than the more formal ‘Pentecost’. This is because this feast is the revelation of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the revelation of the fullness of the Holy Trinity, for until today, we had only known the Father and the Son. The Son had promised us the ‘Comforter’ and today He is here, in fulfilment of that promise.
Pentecost is simply the Greek word for fifty. Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter. The significance of this is that even in the Old Testament (Leviticus 25), the number 50 was special. This is because seven is the number of fullness or completion (God rested on the seventh day, after the six days of Creation). 7 x 7 is therefore a particular sign of fullness and 50 is of course 7 x 7 + 1. Therefore, in the Old Testament, every fiftieth year was called a Jubilee year. The Jubilee year was not only the end of the old Jubilee period, but also the beginning of the new one. Thus, there were forty-nine years between each Jubilee year.
By adding one to seven, we reach eight. Eight is seen as the number of what is beyond the fullness of this world, beyond Creation, beyond created time and space, what is part of the age to come, ‘the eighth day’. Thus, Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit to earth, is the fullness of the revelation of the Holy Trinity. This is why it is called Trinity Day. The Descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven is the sign of the other world, the age to come, ‘the eighth day’, penetrating into this world. That is why baptisteries were, and still are, octagonal. They symbolize the person baptized entering into the other world, becoming a citizen of the Kingdom to come, ‘the eighth day’.
Can you say something about the days immediately before and after Pentecost?
On Easter Night, the Church opens a special book of services for this season of the year. It is called the Pentecostarion or, in Slavonic, the ‘Blossom Triodion’. This contains all the services leading up to Pentecost.
On the thirty-ninth day after Easter, that is Wednesday, we have the leave-taking of Easter. Now, if we can have a liturgy, we sing the Easter service for the last time. Then we take down everything associated with the feast and put the Shroud of Christ, depicting His Burial, which we venerated on Great Friday, back up onto the wall in the altar.
On the fortieth day after Easter, that is Thursday, we have the Ascension. Christ returns to Heaven and His Father. However, He does not return as He came down from heaven. He came down without human nature, but He returns to Him together with human nature. Thus, our human nature sits at the right hand of God the Father. Of course, it is an all-pure and sinless human nature, crucified and risen. Formerly, our human nature was separated from God, but now our nature is joined with Him.
The day before Pentecost, on Saturday, we remember our ancestors, that the Holy Spirit may visit and comfort those that have fallen asleep. At Pentecost itself, called Trinity Day, after the Liturgy, we have the Kneeling Vespers, with the special prayers when we call on the Holy Spirit for ourselves and for the departed. This is the first time that we have knelt since Easter, for in all that time we stood, because we are risen with Christ. The standing celebrates the grace of the Resurrection.
On the Monday after Trinity Day, or Pentecost, we have the Day of the Holy Spirit. This corresponds to the old Whit-Monday, as it used to be called in this country. This is another example of the Orthodox custom of celebrating the person responsible for a feast on the day after it. Thus, we celebrate the Mother of God on the day after the Nativity of Christ, the Forerunner John the Baptist on the day after Theophany, St Simeon and St Anna the day after the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Archangel Gabriel on the day after the Annunciation, St Joachim and St Anna the day after the Presentation of the Mother of God in the Temple, St Andrew the Fool-for-Christ on the day after the Intercession of the Mother of God, and so on.
Whit-Tuesday is known as the Third Day of Pentecost. Indeed, the whole week after Pentecost is a festal, non-fasting week. The Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints Sunday. This is because the saints are the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We can see this clearly, because once the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they became apostles, that is, they were ‘sent’ by God, they became saints.
During the last century, at a time of general apostasy, it also became the custom in different Local Orthodox Churches to commemorate their local saints on the second Sunday after Pentecost and indeed even on succeeding Sundays. Thus, the Russian Church began celebrating all the saints who shone forth in Russia. The service was written by our own Metropolitan Anastasy and it was introduced as a measure for the salvation of Russia. Other countries or regions, like Romania, North America or the British Isles, have imitated this. There is also a commemoration on Mt Athos of All the Saints of Mt Athos.
On the third Sunday after Pentecost the Greeks have a service for all those who suffered under the Turkish Yoke. Then there are other local services, like all the saints of Belarus or Novgorod and so on. In general, this whole period after Trinity Day is then a series of local celebrations of the fruits of the Spirit, the saints, and this is also why, in July and August, we commemorate many of the greatest saints of the Church.
Why do we decorate the church with flowers and hold flowers during the service?
In the prayer you mentioned, ‘Heavenly King’, we ask for salvation. But surely only Christ, and not the Holy Spirit, is our Saviour?
We use many short, and long, prayers, asking for salvation. For example: ‘Most Holy Trinity, save us’. ‘Most Holy Mother of God, save us’. And yet, as you say, there is only one Saviour, Christ our God. So how then can we be saved by the Holy Trinity? Answer: Through the Saviour, through Christ, sent down to us by the Holy Trinity. How can we be saved by the Mother of God? Surely, she cannot save us? Yes, she can – through her mother’s prayers to the Saviour. Christ saves us through others. So too, Christ the Saviour saves us through the Holy Spirit, or, if you like, the Holy Spirit saves us through Christ. After all, it was only through the Saviour, that we received the Holy Spirit and the knowledge of the Holy Trinity. It was only through the Mother of God that the Saviour became one of us, only without sin.
In today’s Epistle, it is said that the apostles seemed to be drunk when they received the Holy Spirit. And yet in the Church we always talk about spiritual sobriety. Why the difference?
First of all, I don’t think we should dare to compare ourselves with the apostles. They had with their own eyes seen the Crucifixion, seen the Risen Christ. When they received the Holy Spirit, they saw visible tongues of fire. This was a unique event. We commemorate it, but since we are not saints, we cannot expect to see tongues of fire or to be ‘drunk’ with Spirit, as they were. To think that we can experience what they did would be incredibly pretentious on our part. This is like the illusion that some people have that ‘they are saved’. Not a single one of us who has the slightest dose of humility can possibly think that we are already saved. It would be towering pride to think such a thing.
In general, we have to be wary of emotions, emotionalism and physical excitement. There are people who work themselves up into exalted physical and emotional states and imagine that they’re almost saints. In the nineteenth century, this was called revivalism among Protestants, later the term ‘Pentecostalism’ was used, nowadays it is called the charismatic movement. This always happens among Protestants or the Protestantized. For example, there is a strong charismatic movement in Roman Catholicism and the people concerned are very protestantized. It is not Orthodox, because it is not spiritual. It is a very dangerous thing to confuse movements of the body or emotional sensations with spirituality. The two are quite different things. Some bodily sensations and emotions can be demonically inspired. We must take care.
The danger of all this emotion and physical excitement is that it creates self-induced states of illusion, of spiritual pride. The way of combating these is in sobriety, which is why there’s such an emphasis on that in the Orthodox Church. That is why we do not laugh in church, we do not make jokes, why we are serious. At a meal afterwards, that is another story, we are freer. At a parish feast, we may all tell jokes and laugh. But any child (or adult) who has a fit of the giggles in church needs to leave at once, calm down and come back when they are ready to pray. It is unbecoming. The church is the house of God. There is a time and a place for everything.
On the day of Pentecost, it is written that the apostles spoke in tongues. Why do we not see this today in the Orthodox Church?
The first part of my answer is the same as to the previous question. Because we are not the apostles. We are unworthy, we are not on their level. Just imagine if one of us began truly to speak in tongues, how proud we would become. It will not happen to us, because the sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit is not pride, but of course humility and modesty, absence of sin. That we do not have today.
However, I think there is a second reason too. This is that the apostles needed to speak in tongues to make themselves understood. Nowadays, if we want to learn a language, we can go to school, take lessons with someone from another country, buy a CD, book or translator, learn from the Internet. But the Apostles depended on the Spirit to communicate. Many of them, as we sing in the troparion of the feast, were simple fishermen, made ‘most wise’ by the Holy Spirit. Nowadays, in our international times, I am not sure that the most useful gift of the Spirit is speaking in tongues. Rather, it might be just the gift to keep practising our faith at a time when hardly anyone does. Our churches are relatively empty. The witness of the Spirit is in the few who still come. Don’t tell me that people who do not go to church are Christians. They are not.
On this question of speaking in tongues, I was told many years ago of someone who was at a charismatic meeting and they had a session of speaking in tongues. Some people stood up and began making strange, almost animal-like noises, like barking. Then one person stood up and began speaking in an unknown language. Then another stood up and shouted out: ‘Stop him, he’s blaspheming the Mother of God’. Apparently, the man who had interrupted had worked as a scientist in South America and had recognised the language the other person had spoken in as an Amazonian native language. Indeed, the person speaking it had been blaspheming the Mother of God. Here there is a clear case of demonic interference, a demon taking over a human-being in order to blaspheme.
I think there is a very important point here. How do we distinguish human-beings from animals? One of the most important things is speech. Human-beings have the word. This is because we are made in the image and likeness of the Word, that is Christ. Animals are not. To reduce human-beings to a wordless state, or Word-less state, is a demonic action. We are not animals, though constantly at the present time, we see some human-beings behaving bestially to each other.
I don’t want to sound priggish, but we really should take care of our language, the way we speak it, the way we write it. This is more than a matter of safeguarding human culture, it is a matter of safeguarding the divine spark within us, our divine origins and destiny. Thus, when human-beings are reduced to animal-like states or trances at a so-called charismatic meeting, I do not want to be there. I have even heard it said that many people who have been through the charismatic movement have been made mentally ill by it, that is, they have been deprived of their reason, their ‘logos’ or ‘word’.
The demons want to take away from us ‘the Word’. Imagine how they mock human-beings who crawl around on all fours and bark, and who at the same time actually believe that they are praising God. Such illusion was known to the Latin Fathers as ‘illusio’ (from where we have the English word illusion), to the Greek Fathers as ‘plani’, to the Slav Fathers as ‘prelest’. It is very difficult to escape from this state of illusion, once you have been caught by it, because you are so convinced, however ridiculously you behave, that you are right and even virtuous. It is pride of mind.
Who is the figure in red in the black space, beneath the apostles, at the bottom of the icon of The Descent of the Holy Spirit?
If you look carefully, you will see, usually in Greek letters, the word ‘The Cosmos’ above him in the black. This crowned figure symbolizes all the knowledge of the universe, ‘the Cosmos’. This includes all the knowledge of the ancient world, of the pagan Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Indians, the Chinese, all the knowledge that was in the world up until the Descent of the Holy Spirit. Much of that knowledge was in itself purely neutral and concerned technologies to grow food and obtain water, make clothes and tools, build boats and houses, care for the human body, write records and stories, create calendars, wonder about God etc. On the day of Pentecost, all such useful knowledge was sanctified and became useful to the Church and the construction of an Orthodox Christian civilization.
Thus, our whole civilization began with Pentecost, the revelation of the Holy Trinity, the coming of the Holy Spirit to mankind. From that day on, our whole civilization became Trinitarian. As one religious writer put it: ‘There is nothing between the Holy Trinity and hell’. If we reject the Holy Trinity, revealed on the day of Pentecost, then we reject the whole of our civilization and our life becomes hellish, infernal. There’s something for us all to think about.