The Feast of Pentecost, which we celebrate today, recalls the day on which the Holy Spirit of God descended upon the Apostles, fired them up and sent them into the world on the universal mission of the Church. The choice of this festival for this particular demonstration of God’s power is by no means an accident. Pentecost is simply the Greek name for the ancient Jewish Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. This celebration comes fifty days after Passover and recalls the gift of the Law by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. Passover is the day when the Hebrew people were freed from tyranny and slavery in Egypt and the Angel of Death and begin their journey to the Promised Land. The giving of the law is the day they sign up as the People of God and begin that sacred task of bringing the knowledge of the one true God to the world.
So it is by no accident that Jesus Christ is sacrificed at Passover. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, is offered on Calvary to turn away the Angel of Death and launch all who are in His Body on their journey to the Promised Land. The Feast of Pentecost, the fifty days after Pascha, sees the gift not of the law but of no less than the Holy Spirit of God Who, the prophets have foretold, will one day write the law of God on the hearts of the faithful.
The Holy Spirit is the mark of the faithful and is God’s sign of claiming them all for His own and sending them into the world to proclaim the one true God and the way of Salvation. In the Gospel of St. Luke, we are given a vivid description of the events of the day. But there is a little peculiarity which, in English, goes unnoticed. The English text says that they were all together. The Greek text tells us that they were all together – together. This is to emphasize that, not only were all the members of the Apostolic college in the same physical location but they were, as one of the older translations has it, ‘of one accord,’ meaning that they were all of one mind and one heart. They were also, all of them individually and as a unified body, waiting on God. This is a prerequisite of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the evangelical work of the Church: Together – Together.
In that upper room on that Day of Pentecost so many centuries ago the four elements of created order come together. The little houses of clay, created by God from the dust of the earth, washed in the waters of the baptism of repentance, are suddenly infused with the breath of God, the unseen mover, the mighty rushing wind of the Spirit, the Life-giver and Consoler, the Spirit of True and the Fire of Love. All who are present, together-together, are then crowned by the energizing, purifying and sanctifying fire of God’s love and power.
Our celebration of Pentecost today looks back to the original marking out of God’s people and then forward to the mission of the Universal Church. The Law that leads the faithful in the way of God now becomes fully infused by the Holy Spirit within the soul of man by the mystery of the sacramental life of the Church.
Exactly what kind of change takes place in each of us when we freely receive the Holy Spirit is best described by St. Basil the Great. He writes, “Souls in whom the Spirit shines become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others. The Spirit gives us the foreknowledge of the future, understanding of the mysteries of faith, and insight into the hidden meaning of Scripture. Through the Spirit, we become citizens of Heaven, we enter eternal happiness, we abide in God.”
This is the promise held out to us in the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments of the Church. In Baptism, we are washed clean of sin and made the sons and daughters of God. In Chrismation or confirmation, we receive and are sealed with the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, thus becoming part of the Body of Christ. This is the same Christ who suffered and died, and Who is risen, ascended and glorified. This is the Christ, Jesus, Who is both God and Man and whose divinity translates our humanity into eternity. So, St. Basil concludes that, since we are in the God-Man Christ Who is present to us in the Holy Mysteries by the Holy Spirit, the divine life of God: ‘Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness of God.’ Thus, we become like Jesus. That is the meaning of “Christening.” St. Basil then concludes with the stunning sentence: “Through the Spirit we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations – we become God.”
This is what is working within us at the Divine Liturgy. It is what St. Athanasius describes as ‘the divinization of Man,’ it is the key to living in eternity in the All Holy Presence of the Father. Only as sons and daughters, purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit, can we be in Christ and share in His life that is both divine and eternal. That message is the Gospel of hope that the Church holds out to all mankind.
The road to eternity begins with the spiritual fire of Pentecost and leads, via the sacramental life faithfully and fully lived, to Heaven. Our task is, like the Apostles on fire with the love of God, is to pour into the streets of our towns and cities and to speak to all who will listen, in language that they understand, ‘the might works of God’ and invite them on this journey into the heart of God.
In the dramatic events of that first Pentecost, when the bewildered and excited disciples poured into the streets, they had one purpose in mind: to let the Word go forth. And it did! The Word went forth from Jerusalem to Judea, and on to Corinth and Ephesus and Rome and Africa and Asia Minor and Spain and Gaul and even, eventually, to America.
What began with a few frightened people in a darkened room in Jerusalem has spilled out and touched every corner of the globe. You will find the Word preached in every language, just as on that very first Pentecost, and understood in billions of hearts for more than 21 centuries. And it all began on this day we celebrate: Pentecost, the birthday of the Church.
As true as it is that today is the birthday of the Church, I like to think of it more as the Epiphany or manifestation of the Church. I say this because, in reality, the Church was actually established when Christ hung on the Cross. Our tradition tells us that the Church was born with the death of Christ. Pentecost, in its proper sense, represents the Church coming to its fullness, and that is what is what is very important to us today, as we celebrate the Feast today.
The essence of today’s celebration is that Jesus and the Father have fulfilled their promise to us, that they would not leave us orphans, that they would send the Holy Spirit to empower us, to enliven us, to guide us to the truth, and today is the day that happens. Today, we celebrate the life-changing gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples felt like orphans, abandoned and confused. More than that, they were afraid, afraid of many things, but particularly of the Jewish authorities. So they were hiding behind locked doors. That was their comfort zone, their sense of safety and security. Within the room where they sat and talked together, they felt safe and supported and protected. But what they were doing was, in fact, in completely opposite to what Jesus had entrusted, even commanded, them to do, which was to go out to all the world and proclaim the good news. We can understand their worries and anxieties, and their fears.
We might call it cowardice, but for the disciples in the upper room, they felt safe. We all know what it means to be in our comfort zone. But Jesus appeared to them there, in their comfort zone, and his first message was ‘peace.’ After that, He imparted unto them, His gift; the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus came into the midst of His apostles and disciples, he greets them with the words, “Peace be with you!” It was necessary for Jesus to say this because their peace was disturbed in many ways. There peace with God was troubled; they had sinned against Him, some by denying Him, others by running away.
To put them at ease, Jesus offers them the peace of reconciliation with God. The same peace we receive in the Holy Mysteries. The peace that Jesus gives is not the absence of trouble but rather the confidence that He is here with us always.
The peace of the Apostles and disciples was disturbed because they were depressed and hesitant in their faith. And to this He says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus meant this desire for peace to put them at ease, to reassure them and to lift the doubt and fear from their hearts. He speaks these words to each of us constantly during every Divine Liturgy and worship service of the Church.
When the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they were filled with love and truth, and began to speak in foreign languages. So here is the moment of epiphany, the manifestation of the Church, and the manifestation of Her mission to all people. The gift of the Holy Spirit transforms them, right then and there, from being cowards, to being courageous. We know what happened from there. They all went out proclaiming the message of the Gospel, to all people in their own languages according to the inklings of the Holy Spirit.
The same Holy Spirit is dwelling within each one of us today, empowering us to get out of our comfort zones and to proclaim the message of peace to all people. It is hard work, but it is only burdensome if we are weak in faith and belief.
God wants to channel within us His grace. He wishes to make us instruments of His peace. This is God’s work; we are just His instruments and workers. There are many ways we can preach the message of peace. We do not have to go to other countries or remote places to preach the Gospel. There are plenty of opportunities, right here in the community in which we live to spread the Word.
We are a people sent forth. When we go out of this church today, just give a genuine smile to the stranger you meet on the street. Give a call to someone you have not spoken to in a while. Invite someone who is alone and without family to have dinner with you. Volunteer some of your time to work at your local animal shelter. Plant some flowers and trees to renew the creation God has entrusted to our care.
On this particular Sunday, five words sum up the meaning the Feast we celebrate today: “Let the Word go forth!” And we are the ones entrusted with this most noble task. We need now, more than ever, to keep spreading the Word and to remind ourselves of the rugged beginnings of this rugged faith we profess and to carry it on and live it fully, just as the first Christians did.
We need, quite simply, to throw open the windows of our fear and doubt and uncertainty to let in the Light and let the Word go forth. It is a daunting task, but it is not one that we undertake alone. We have the Holy Spirit, and we have each other. We have the Spirit to keep the flame of faith and zeal alive with His seven-fold gifts: the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. We have the Spirit to uplift us when we are struggling and discouraged, to strengthen us when we are weak, to console us when we are grieving, to reassure us when we are frightened. So you see, we are not in this alone.
St. John, in his Gospel, tells us: “The Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth.” The Holy Spirit is our guide, and more than that, our role model. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul calls us to “live in the Spirit.” And he then reminds us what beautiful fruits that kind of living offers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
When you consider all that, you realize what living in the Spirit really means: it is, in fact, living in Christ, and by extension living not only in Christ, but in His Father as well. The early Christians had a name for that: “the Way.” This is our way. This is the Orthodox Catholic way of life. You find it today in some very surprising places. You find it lived out in the hospitality and care offered by Mercy House to the residents of Alphabet City in Lower Manhattan. You will find it in Phoenix, Arizona where FOCUS North America provides meals, supplies and medical care to over 200 children a day. You will find it in Orlando, Florida during the annual Christmas party for the homeless provided by St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. And you will find it here in our own Cathedral community, where dozens of dedicated and loving parishioners joyfully serve the most needy and vulnerable of God’s children living in the Mohawk Valley.
Yes, you find it in churches from Utica to Uganda, where faithful men, women and children offer their prayers to God, asking for healing, or reconciliation, or peace and roll up their sleeves to serve those of their brothers and sisters who are in need or suffering. You find it anywhere a Christian strives to hold the hand of someone who is hurting, bring comfort to someone who is lonely, or restore faith to someone who has lost it. We keep the flame of Pentecost alive and burning and follow “the Way” when our greatest ambition is simply to be like Christ.
As Christians, we should not ask what God can do for us but what we can do for God. Our ancestors in the early Church understood this. They knew that they existed to serve God and be like Him. We are the beneficiaries of their knowledge, and of their witness, which was sometimes manifested in blood. All of us who gather to pray and remember and rejoice on this Pentecost are heirs of that first Pentecost. Those first Christians cleared the path and often died trying, so that we could walk in their footsteps, so that we could walk “The Way” today.
So today, dare to ask the questions: Where will our footsteps take us? Who will be the beneficiaries of our choices? Who will carry the flame, the torch of faith, as it is passed? It is up to each of us to ensure that there are positive answers to each of those questions. This Pentecost, let us ask the Holy Spirit to touch and inflame all of our hearts, as He touched and fills the hearts of the disciples on the first Pentecost. Just as Jesus gave His first disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, so he breathes on us the same Holy Spirit who equips us with power, grace, and strength.
As we continue our celebration today, let us pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love, and renew the face of the earth.” Let the fire burn over you, so the flame of love and truth will spread like wildfire. This Pentecost, go ahead. Strike a match. Set the world ablaze and let the Word go forth.