Pentecost And The Unity Of The Church


IT IS PAINFULLY EVIDENT today that Orthodox people are not able to distinguish among the feasts in the Church as to which are shaped by time and which are not. It is as important to know those not related to time, that is, those which from the beginning took their date of celebration from an already established calendar. Christmas fits into such a setting and because of that we find some Orthodox celebrating it on January 7 and some on December 25. The early Christians had to celebrate the Birth of Christ, but time or date here was not important and was therefore probably based on the pagan calendar which was the secular calendar of the early Christians. But there are those feasts which are more directly founded in time and so gave meaning to the Christian time. These feasts which determine time have their beginnings in the Jewish heritage and the Paschal cycle of Easter and Pentecost fall into this category. Christians, therefore, took their calendar from both the secular or pagan world and also from their Jewish past. The basis that determined which of the two was to be used depended upon the nature of the Feast itself. We discover from this two important Christian understandings of celebration and time. The first is that upon a Feast our time and the “rhythm” of life finds its base. The feast gives meaning to the natural time in my life. I “fast” and “feast’ and my life falls into and is formed by the life of the Church. The second understanding is that the time or date of a particular celebration is not the controlling factor; it is the event in itself that gives meaning to the celebration. The celebration of Pentecost falls into the first group, the one that gives meaning to “natural time.”

For Christians Pentecost cannot be separated from Easter. Together they give the true significance to the Christian year and retain that Jewish flavor which we have mentioned. Our time in the Church is subjected to these two feasts and rightfully so because they commemorate the two events without which there would be no Church: the Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Church is the continual manifestation and fulfillment of that “experience of time” created by these two feasts. In fact, the Church begins counting its Sundays as being “after Pentecost”; 1st Sunday after Pentecost, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. etc. up to and including the 32nd Sunday after Pentecost.

The Church’s occupation. therefore, was exactly this: to experience and bless time and joy in this life and also to experience and bless that time which is to come: that passage from this life into the new life. Because it is intended to experience the joy in this life, Pentecost with Easter is celebrated in the spring. It is spring that represents the coming back of life after the death of winter. Because it is to experience the “passage” from this life into the new life the Church remembers that Israel overcame the Pharaoh in its “passage” to the promised land. The Katavasia at Matins says: “Let us praise him who overwhelmed Pharaoh and his chariots in the sea. . .”

But for Christians, Christ became “our Passover” (I Cor. 5:7) when he performed this passage to the Father on the last and great day of Pentecost. The old time, the time of bondage to winter, has now become the new time, the release into spring. But now there is a new dimension to be considered because Christ has given all natural time a new understanding when he inaugurated the new “eon” (age), the anticipation and eschatological “wait.” This time can not be subjected to any natural time but certainly is best symbolized by the life of spring in its natural time.

This new “eon” is that which unites all Christians even as it did the apostles, for it makes clear our mission as the Church, as one body of Christ, looking not for the things of “this world,” but for things which are to come. St. Athanasius writes of this: “We celebrate the holy days of Pentecost looking to the age to come. That which acts in this new “eon” to unify the Church is the “Paraclete” the “comforter” or “helper,” the one that is sent to bring the gift of many tongues upon the disciples, not to divide but to unite them and to “institute” the Church. This is why the ninth ode of Matins says: “for by one voice, which the Disciples received in diverse kinds, through the grace of the spirit, all the nations, tribes and tongues heard great things of God.” In the Kontakion of the Liturgy this idea iof unity is again reiterated: “And when he dlistributed the fiery tongues he called all to one unity. Wherefore, in unison we glorify the most Holy Spirit.” It is not, therefore, the difference of tongues which serves to divide as it did the tower builders of Babel. The Aposticha at Vespers explains why explicitly: “At that time (Babel) the confusion of tongues was designed for vengeance, and now (Pentecost) the unison of tongues has both been renewed for the salvation of our souls.” In fact it is because of that gift, that Charisma of the Holy Spirit, which enables the Apostles to “go to all nations.” and therefore the ode says “all nations, all tribes, all tongues heard the great things.” The Holy Spirit has illuminated them and has given them that proper dispensation; the prayers at the Kneeling Service (Vespers) remind us of this when the say the Apostles were “alighted and filled,” were given “tongues of fire.” It is because of all this that Pentecost is often called the Birthday of the Church. It is also true that Pentecost, as one can see in all these liturgical examples, gives us the reason for the necessity of using the language of the people in our Churches, e.g. English. They were given the gift of tongues to go to all nations and to speak in the language of that land, that is, in the language that could be understood there. A real organic unity can only be reached when we speak in one language. Look again at these examples: “for by one voice” and “he called all to one unity.”

And finally, Pentecost is also the first time since Easter that Christians are allowed to kneel. This is the day when every priest receives complaints about the length of the “Kneeling Service, but perhaps this is only proper, for we must now return to the night of time and history, of daily effort, of the fatigue and temptations, of the whole inescapable burden of life. Kneeling, if it is a negative burden, reminds us of the positive joy of those fifty days, but it is not that that joy is at an end, although the “time” of those fifty days is.

That “end” is now the “beginning,” so made because Christ is risen and has transformed all time into a beginning, into time “after Pentecost,” into time which the Holy Spirit works in all of us to transform us into “fishermen who can catch the world.”