Today, beloved, we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, the feast of the gift of the Holy Spirit and by tradition, the “birthday” of the Church.
Pentecost derives from the Greek word “Pentekoste,” meaning “fiftieth.” In the Jewish tradition, it is also known as the “Feast of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22), and the “Feast of 50 Days.” For us Orthodox Catholic Christians, it is entirely acceptable to refer to Pentecost by these designations as well, since Pentecost follows fifty days after the Feast of Pascha (Passover). Thus, for us, Pentecost, culminates the fifty days celebration of Pascha.
Pentecost marks the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles while they were cowering and hiding behind locked doors in the Upper Room following Jesus’ resurrection. After receiving the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles immediately went out and proclaimed and preached the Gospel of Jesus to everyone, even those who spoke other languages.
Pentecost has several symbols associated with it. These are wind, fire, and a dove. The first symbol, wind, is taken from the noise the Apostles heard as the Spirit descended upon them (Acts 2:2). After the wind, flames appeared and rested upon the heads of each of the Apostles (Acts 2:3). A dove serves also as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. While there is no mention of a dove in Acts in relation to Pentecost, nevertheless, we associate the dove with the Holy Spirit because of the story of Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan River: “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon Him” (Matthew 3:16).
In the process of revealing His plan of salvation for mankind, God established His annual Holy Days around the harvest seasons of His people in the Middle East (Leviticus 23:9-16; Exodus 23:14-16). Just as His people harvested their crops around these three festival seasons, God’s Holy Days show us how He is harvesting people for His Church and for eternal life in His Kingdom.
The feasts and holy days of the Church have meanings that build upon each other. Together, they progressively reveal how God works with humanity. In the feasts and holy days of the Church, the story of salvation history and redemption is told to us. But the Church’s feasts and holy days do more than tell us a story; they are opportunities for us to experience the life of God in intimate and tangible ways. In these celebrations, we come to know God more fully and are thus able to take from them the grace which God desires so much to bestow upon us. That is, if we are so inclined to accept His gifts.
Fifty days ago, in our observance and celebration of Passover, we saw Christ giving of Himself for us so our sins could be forgiven and we could be redeemed from death. We also learned how the Days of Unleavened Bread teach us that we must remove and avoid sin and instead obey God in actions and attitudes. Today, the Feast of Pentecost builds upon and crowns what was begun and brought to completion at Pascha.
As I mentioned earlier, Pentecost is also known as the “Feast of Weeks” and the “Feast of 50 Days.” It is also known as the “Feast of Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), because it represents the first-fruits gathered through the labor of those who completed the spring grain harvests in ancient Israel (Exodus 23:16). Among the Jews, the most popular name for this festival is the “Feast of Weeks,” or “Shavuot,” in Hebrew. When celebrating this festival, the Jewish people also recall the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. For us, as the people of the New Covenant, Pentecost represents the miracle by which we are empowered and given the grace by the Holy Spirit not only to observe all that Jesus commanded us but to live it to the glory of God and to our salvation.
God chose the first Pentecost after Jesus’ Resurrection to pour out His Holy Spirit on 120 believers (Acts 1:15). “Now, when the Day of Pentecost had 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 filledf the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).
The speaking in various languages occurred as a crowd of people from many nations gathered in Jerusalem, with each vistor hearing the disciples in his orm her own native language (Acts 2:6-11). These astounding events demonstrated the presence of the Holy Spirit.
At first, the people of Jerusalem who witnessed the language miracle were astonished, with some of them attributing what happened to the Christians drinking too much wine or beer; in other words, they thought the Christians were drunk. The Apostle Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly explained to the crowd that was happening was a fulfillment of the Prophet Joel’s prophecy: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28).
Peter explained how his listeners could also receive this Spirit: “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord will call” (Acts 2:38-39).
God used these miracles and Peter’s preaching to add 3,000 people to His Church in one day. These converts were all baptized and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:40-41). From this pivotal point, God’s Holy Spirit has been available to all who truly repent and are properly baptized. The Day or Feast of Pentecost is an annual reminder to us that God poured out His Spirit to establoish His Church, the group of the elect, the chosen, who are led by the same Spirit of God.
Humanly speaking, no matter how hard we try not to, we still sin. Acknowledging this inherent weakness of humanity, God lamented, “Oh that they had such a hearty in them that they would fear Me and always keep My commandments that it might be well with them and with their children forever!”(Deuteronomy 5:29).
Here God explains that humankind has a heart problem. Academic knowledge of the law does not enable us to think like God. Being godly in our thoughts, attitudes and actions is beyond the comprehension and ability of men and women who do not have the Holy Spirit within them.
God’s way of thinking produces peace, happiness and a genuine concern for others. Jesus complimented a religious scholar who correctly quoted the essence of God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
The essence of God’s law and life is love. God gave His commandments because He loves us. He wants us to be happy, not in ways we think make us happy in this world, but in more realistic and fulfilling ways. In order to obtain the true happiness we seek, however, we must first love God and keep His commandments. Then will our eyes and hearts be opened to see and receive the happiness we so earnestly desire.
God’ commandments are not burdensome. On the contrary, they are freeing and remove from us the real burdens that inhibit and preclude us from experiencing the happiness we so desperately desire and seek. God sends us the gift of His Holy Spirit to enable us to achieve all that we seek for ourselves and others.
Because God’s Spirit took up its abode in the Church on that first Pentecost so long ago, it became possible for the members of the Church to express genuine love. So it is true for us today. The Holy Spirti fills the Church with all that is good, with holiness, righteous and most importantly, with love – the love of God. It is from this love that good, holiness and righteousness find their origin. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost made it possible for the Church to fully express God’s love in tangible ways. The Holy Spirit planted the seeds of God’s love within us and now we are called to cultivate, nourish and bring that love to fruitful harvest.
Throughout the Bisble, GHod uses the analogy of the harvest and, particularly on Pentecost, firstfruits, to illustrate aspects of His plan of salvation. Israel observed this day in the late spring after the barley and wheat harvests. A special offering of the first ripe grain during the Days of Unleavened Bread, called the wave-sheaf offering, marked the beginning of these harvests, which continued during the next fifty days and led up to Pentecost. Thi spring harvest was the firstfruits of the yearly agricultural cycle.
One of the first harvest lessons of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ “is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The wave-sheaf offering represented Jesus Christ, who was the “firstborn over all creation” and the “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15, 18).
In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as “the firstborn of many brethren.” Yet the New Testament Church is also considered to be firstfruits. In speaking of the Father, St. James said, “Of His own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18).
St. Paul, again in his Letter to the Romans, says to us, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:9). And, “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the children of God” (Romans 8:14). God’s Spirit within us identifies us and sanctifies us and sets us apart from all other human beings who do not know or who have rejected Christ.
Few people realize or understand that God has a definite plan for humankind. This plan is manifested most clearly and simply within the Church. God’s desire is to save all of humanity by offering all people eternal life in His Kingdom. In this world, we are simply at the beginning of the harvest for the Kingdom of God. The Church is the vineyard in which the vine has been planted and it is constantly nourished and fed by the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ so that it may bring forth abundant fruit for the harvest.
The Church teaches us that God calls us to Himself; he does not compel or force us to submit to Him or do His will. Such a decision is borne of our free will. When God completed the founding of His Church by filling it with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, he was expanding His spiritual harvest. It was the beginning of what the Prophet Joel prophesied, that God will ultimately pour out His Spirit on “all flesh.”
The coming of the Holy Spirit dramatically changed the lives of the early Christians. The Book of Acts is filled with accounts of the early Church’s remarkable spiritual impact on the surrounding society. A transformation was so evident that nonbelievers accused the Christians of “Turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Such was the dynamic, miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost changes us. It wipes away fear. It wipes away division. It opens up cosed doors. Pentecost allows us to go forth into the streets, into the public square, to preach the Good News of salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pentecost empowers us to go forth and proclaim to all nations and peoples that “Christ is the Lord!”
As the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles as tongues of fire so too does the Spirit descend upon us today. Fire burns away what is useless. Fire refines what is noble. Fire melts the cold and unites the divided. Today, on this great feast of Pentecost, the fire of the holy Spirit purifies and refines us, unites and inspires us. As one Church united in faith, we, the disciples of the Lord and baptized members of His Body, burn with love for the Lord and the desire to share Him with all.
The Holy Spirit, who is the love of God poured out into our hearts, opens our hearts and makes them capable of understanding other people. Human pride always creates divisions and misunderstandings. The Holy Spirit draws us together. Individualism throws up walls of indiffernence and separation. The Holy Spirit breaks down barriers and unites. Selfishness breeds confusion. The Holy Spirit creates communion and fellowship.
The Holy Spirit makes us the dwelling-place of God, a holy temple. The Spirit brings about the one change for which the world has always longed: unity of mind and heart. The Holy Spirit makes us, as diverse and individually unique as we are, one body, one Church. Truly, the Feast of Pentecost is a feast of hope and promise. Let us today open our hearts to the fire that is the love of God. May that fire burn intensely and always in our hearts so that we may go forth as Church and proclaim God’s saving works and Good News of salvation to a wanting, waiting and longing world.