The feast of Pentecost in Christian tradition celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the newly formed Christian community. But it is important to remember that celebrating a past event does not mean simply remembering that event; it means rather re-creating the event, making it real in the present, realizing its significance and power as if it were the original occurrence. The Holy Spirit, who came upon the Church on the first Pentecost, now comes again upon the Church in the twenty-first century, not a new occurrence, but a renewal and extension of that first Christian Pentecost in Jerusalem. We, as a community and as individuals, must opoen our hearts and our very beings and receive Him in faith.
The name “Pentecost” derives from the Greek word for fifty and indicates that the feast takes place on the fiftieth day after our Lord’s Resurrection. Strictly speaking, this is seven weeks of seven days each plus one day. Furthermore it has important roots in the older Hebraic tradition, roots which must not be forgotten if we are going to appreciate fully the significance of Pentecost. The number seven in Jewish symbolism implied perfection and completion, and hence the Christian Pentecost of seven times seven implies the full and total completion of our Lord’s earthly economy. The added day, making fifty, is further symbolic of the New Creation into which our Lord gives us birth and new life. It is in a sense the “eighth day” of the week, the days which ushers in the eschaton, the new creation in the eternal realm of G-d. On Pentecost, therefore, the Church is filled with new life and new vitality, not simply earthly life as we know it, but the life of the Spirit. From this time onward, G-d Himself dwells with his people in a way never experienced before. The Creation is renewed and the Kingdom of Heaven — although unseen by mortal eyes and incomprehensible to the human intellect — is a reality, and it is a Kingdom which will never be moved or destroyed by any earthly power. The New Age, the age of Eternity, is now a reality, open to all who wish to receive and accept it, and the Christian can, through the power of faith, see himself as a part of this new order, not simply waiting for the Kingdom of G-d, but already experiencing it.
But when we look around us, it often happens that we see little sign of this New Creation. The world in which we live is still torn by war, still afflicted with disease and hunger, still filled with human suffering and sorrow. What then? Where is this Kingdom of G-d? Why is it so hidden from our experience? Why can we not taste the fullness of its blessings? Is it a reality after all? Or is it only an illusion born of our wishful thinking?
The Kingdom of G-d is indeed a reality, and if the dispensation under which we live were like that of the Old Covenant, then perhaps the blessings of the New Creation would be more evident and readily accessible to our experience. But the New Creation brought about by G-d through Christ, far transcends the older legalistic traditions of the Old Covenant. Let us think back to the Feast of Pentecost as the Jews of our Lord’s time would have known it. The first full moon after the spring equinox was the great feast of the Hebrew Passover, Pesach in Hebrew. Pesach was a very ancient spring festival which had been adapted by the Hebrew people as a celebration of the Exodus, the event when G-d’s people were set free from slavery and delivered out of Egypt in order to become His Holy Nation, His Kingdom of Priests. Seven weeks after that event, according to the narrative of the Old Testament, the Hebrew people found themselves at Mount Sinai, and there a Covenant was made between G-d and the people. They were given the Law, a Law designed to be the foundation of their national existence. This Old Covenant between G-d and His people was based on a simple and logical agreement: The G-d who revealed himself at Sinai would be the G-d of Israel, her protector and her deliverer, and Israel in return would be faithful to this G-d and his Law.
What happened in the history of the Hebrew people after this event is a long and complex story, but its eventual outcome was that the people of G-d were bound and fettered by a system which had become legalistic virtually to the point of being stifling. Hence, according to the words of Christ Himself, the Pharisees were able to lay “heavy burdens” upon men. Although there may have been a certain satisfaction in the keeping of the Law, there was little room left for mercy and compassion, virtues which in the Old Testament were paramount, and even less room for the working of the Spirit. Above all, there was little room left for growth and movement towards G-d Himself, and without growth in the Spirit, all faith and religion becomes nothing but an empty shell.
It was this situation which had caused the Law to become the “strength of sin,” and hence there was needed a renewal and revitalization of what had once been given at Sinai. Hence, our Lord’s work on earth, from his Incarnation to his Ascension, is the means whereby His people — not only his Hebrew people, but all men — are taken out of the burden in which they had been engulfed and are now given new life and new existence in the Kingdom of Eternity. On the first Pentecost, centuries before at Sinai, G-d had come down from heaven and gave men his Law, but on the new Pentecost, G-d again comes down from heaven, and gives not a Law, but his own divine life. In so doing He lifts His people up to Himself, and G-d’s people now are not to be simply his servants, but his co-workers in the building and realization of His Kingdom on earth. In a very real sense, the feast of Pentecost is the beginning of that process which the Orthodox Church calls theosis, the deification of humanity, the eternal process wherein the Christian community becomes “partakers of the divine nature.”
But why can we not see the Kingdom as an actual reality? Why must we perceive it only through the eyes of faith? Let us not ask for the impossible. We are human beings, sinful and essentially separated from G-d. It is true that we are redeemed and given new life in Christ, but out process of growth has only started. We cannot expect to be suddenly plunged into the reality of eternal life and eternal existence. We can only grow towards it — slowly, as it may seem to us — but all in the good time and purposes of G-d. Now, as Paul tells us, we can only “see through a glass darkly,” but the time will come when we shall see the Kingdom face to face. Until then, we must live by faith, and the Spirit who comes at Pentecost will give us this faith, will strengthen it and us, and lead us into the eternal reality of G-d.
Let us celebrate Pentecost, not only as a remembrance of a past event, but as a joyful participation in, and a full experience of, the reality of the life and presence of G-d the Holy Trinity. To Him be glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.
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