Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily for the Sunday of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-11 / John 7:37-52; 8:12

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters: Spraznecom, Happy Feast!

Fifty days have now passed since we gathered here for Pascha, and ten days since the Feast of the Ascension. Today we celebrate the glorious culmination and climax of the story of our salvation. God, in His Mercy and Love for mankind, became Incarnate so that He might send the Divine Spirit on the creatures He had purchased and redeemed through His precious Blood. Unusually, though today we find our main narrative for the Feast not so much from the Gospel we have just heard but rather from St Luke’s account of that first extraordinary feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem in our Epistle reading from Acts. To help us understand this great Feast of the Church, let us turn to the beautiful series of homilies that St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome wrote in the mid-5th century.

In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.

Our Gospel reading for the Feast of Pentecost is taken from St John’s Gospel, chapter 7. Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem for the Feast, the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. This was the second of the three pilgrim festivals of the Jewish Liturgical Calendar. This day marked Fifty days after the Passover according to Deuteronomy 16:10 and fifty days after the Sabbath according to Leviticus. Festival of Weeks is also known as the Feast of Harvest in Exodus 23:16 and the Day of First Fruits in Numbers 28:26. In the Rabbinic period – during the 1st century – where Jewish worship began to move from the Temple to the Synagogue, it was also common for believers to come and decorate the Synagogue with flowers, foliage and fruit.

By selecting this particular passage for this Great Feast, Mother Church is, reminding us that our own Feast today completes and fulfils what was begun under the Old Covenant. Thus in many churches there is the tradition of greening the church, of filling it with all sorts of greenery, foliage and flowers and grass. For us, the New Israel of God, the children of the New Covenant, this greenery honours the Descent on this day of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the One Who in the Creed we refer to as “the Lord, the Giver-of-Life”, the energizing, divinizing Power of God. Our Lord’s words – ‘If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink’ may perhaps remind us of his dialogue with the Samaritan Woman that we heard a few weeks ago.

He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)

In one of his homilies for the Feast, Pope Leo of Rome begins –

From this day the trumpet of the Gospel teaching resounds. From this day showers of graces, streams of benedictions, water all the desert and every wasteland.

With the final descent of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost would mark the birth of the Church as the hospital, as the source of grace for a spiritually parched and arid land. For the narrative of this beautiful Feast of the Church we need to turn from the Gospel to the Apostol which records what happened after the Ascension of Christ.

As we heard in our Gospel reading on the Feast of the Ascension of Christ, ten days ago, the disciples were instructed by the Lord to remain in the city of Jerusalem until they were ‘endued with power from on high’. In the opening verses of our Apostol reading we find that the disciples had indeed been obedient to the Lord and were all ‘with one accord in one place’. According to Holy Tradition this place where they were gathered was the Upper Room spoken of in the Gospels where they had celebrated the Last Supper together. This is identified as the Cenacle, (from the Latin cenaculum, “dining room”) on Mt Zion just outside the Old City walls. We hear that the Holy Spirit when it descended came with a ‘sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind’. This reminds us of those words of our Lord in St John’s Gospel –

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirt.

The Holy Spirit is a driving and dynamic Force that sometimes – as at Pentecost – comes upon us with dramatic intensity, and knocks us off our chairs, but at other times, as the Prophet Elijha experienced, not as a ‘mighty wind’ nor as an earthquake, but rather a ‘gentle breeze’. A whisper in the desert. A nudge, a small voice, a burning heart, the prick of conscience.

We then hear, as we see depicted in the ikon of the feast, ‘there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them’. For the Holy Spirit is also rightly thought of as fire. The holy Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews, speaks of God as ‘a consuming fire’. For the Spirit is Immaterial, Illumining all which He touches with a fire which at once purifies and cleanses so that hearts which have been darkened by sin might be made radiant and beautiful once again.

We then hear that once filled with the Holy Spirit, these eleven rough and illiterate fisherman of Galilee ‘began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance’ so that all the diverse people who were gathered there could hear the Word of God preached in their own languages, or tongues. It is here important to emphasise that ‘speaking in tongues’ is not as some – so called – Pentecostalists or Charismatics believe speaking unintelligible gobledigook, but rather is found in speaking and preaching the Word of God in all the languages of the world. Aside from the Apostles themselves, we can also think more recently how the same Holy Spirit continues to assist the Mission of the Church in the preaching of the Gospel to new peoples – such as the great missionary work of St Nicholas in Japan or St Innocent of Alaska.

We can thus see that our Feast of Pentecost reverses the communicative confusion of the Tower of Babel. As we heard in Vespers –

Of old the tongues were confounded because of the audacity in the building of the tower, but now the tongues are made wise because of the glory of Divine knowledge. There God condemned the impious because of their offense, and here Christ hath enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit. At that time the confusion of tongues was wrought for punishment, but now the concord of tongues hath been inaugurated for the salvation of our souls.

In his homilies for the feast, St Leo reminds us that we should not see today’s Feast as the First-coming, the First-Showing or appearance of the Holy Spirit.

When on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, it was not the beginning of the gift but an addition to his generosity. The patriarchs, the prophets, the priests, and all the saints who lived in former times were invigorated by the sanctifying of the Same Spirit.

Just as there is continuity and recapitulation in the Feast of the Jewish Pentecost being fulfilled in our own Orthodox feast of Pentecost, so too the Holy Spirit has been active and at work since the very dawn of creation “hovering over the face of the waters” and through the inspired preaching of the prophets.

He was increasing his gifts, not simply beginning them. Because He was richer in his generosity does not mean that he was a novice in giving.

We will also recall the mention of the Holy Spirit throughout the whole Gospel and the narrative of Christ’s life, from the Holy Spirit’s role in the moment of the Incarnation as announced by the Archangel. We can then think of the Holy Spirit descending upon our Lord at His Baptism and driving Him out into the Wilderness. We then hear of the Lord bestowing the Holy Spirit upon the disciples after His Resurrection. At Pentecost thus, far from the first appearance, this is more the greatest and fullest manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Although the disciples had received the Holy Spirit from our Lord and were able to forgive and remit sins through this grace, it was only at this feast, the feast of Pentecost that they were filled with the Holy Spirit. And it was from this feast that we really see the profound change in the disciples. They changed from the often inadequate and fearful disciples of the Gospels, making mistakes, falling away, getting it wrong time and time again, to the Holy wonder-working Apostles of Acts. It is only after Pentecost that they were transformed and in the Grace of the Holy Spirit, preached with great boldness, taking the Gospel to every corner of the world. As St Leo says –

The apostles, after they were filled with the new abundance of the Holy Spirit, began to will more ardently and to work more efficiently, profiting from the knowledge of their teachers to bear suffering. Trembling under no storms, by their surpassing faith, they trod underfoot the vicissitudes of the age and the pride of the world. Despising death, they carried the Gospel of truth to all nations.

It was only through the Grace of the Holy Spirit given at Pentecost that the disciples were enabled to have the strength to suffer for the faith, and be prepared to die for it.

From what we have mentioned, it should thus be abundantly clear just how important the Person of the Holy Spirit is throughout the Old and New Testaments. However, in the early Church, in the late fourth century a heresy grew up which denied the co-divinity and co-equality of the Person of the Holy Spirit and saw Him as a creation of the Father and the Son. In his homilies, St Leo is deeply critical of the blasphemy of those who denigrate the majesty and dignity of the Holy Spirit.

They do not realize that they fall into that blasphemy which is to be forgiven neither in this age nor in the future judgments, as the Lord says: Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the one to come.

The Orthodox Church rallied and united against the heresy of those who denied the Holy Spirit – the Pneumatomachi – or Spirit fighters – and denounced them at the Second Oecumenical Council in Constantinople which is where we derive the extra article relating to the Holy Spirit in our Symbol of Faith.

And in the Holy Spirit. The lord the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father. Who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.

In his homilies, St Leo then tries to expound for His flock the importance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It can seem, perhaps, at first glance that this is just a clever, intellectual abstraction made by bishops and theologians, and not something for the ordinary faithful, the laity to really learn about or concern themselves about. However, it is clear that St Leo did not think this to be the case at all.

Earthly wisdom has not invented this faith, nor has human opinion fixed it, but the only Son has taught it himself, and the Holy Spirit established it.

The doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely fundamental to our Orthodox Faith, as it fundamentally informs and determines how we relate to and understand God. It is not just an arcane and irrelevant abstraction, but is a response to God’s own self-revelation through the Old and New Covenants, His consistent appearance through the full history of salvation. It is Christ’s own words together with the events of the Gospel which leads us to see however dimly or inadequately that God is more than a monad, and through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, we understand that there is in some way both differentiation and unity within the Godhead. The Church thus confesses that there are 3 Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – which are nevertheless fully united in One Essence, One substance.

All gradations are excluded, and no Person is first none is last. The unchangeable divinity of this Blessed Trinity is one in power, equal in glory … the Trinity allows no solitariness and the equality preserves the unity.

The majesty of the Holy Spirit is never separated from the omnipotence of the Father and the Son…. What the Father illumines, the Son illumines, and the Holy Spirit illumines.

There are not some things that belong to the Father, some to the Son, and others to the Holy Spirit, but everything the Father has, the Son also has, and the Holy Spirit also has. Never was there not this fellowship in that Trinity …

After carefully expounding the Orthodox understanding of our Triune God, St Leo then ends each of his homilies on the Feast with a reminder and exhortation to embrace the forthcoming Apostles’ Fast which will begin the day after the Sunday of All-Saints, next Sunday.

We must not doubt, dearly beloved, that every Christian observance comes from the divine teaching, and whatever has been received by the Church into its customs of worship arises from the apostolic tradition and the teachings of the Holy Spirit … On the day of Pentecost … the Holy Spirit, promised by the Lord, had filled the hearts of those waiting for him with a greater abundance than ever and with a clearer presence of his majesty. It is certainly obvious that, among other gifts of God, the grace of the fast also, which follows today’s feast, was then ordained. As self-indulgence was the beginning of sins, so self-control is the source of virtue.

It is thus through fasting that we are enabled to receive, revive and enkindle the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The dust of our flesh, unless it undergoes constant cultivation, from sloth and ease quickly brings forth thorns and briars, and in a worthless harvest will give fruit not to be put into the barn but to be burned by fire.

So, my dear Father, brothers and sisters, let us not dare to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, but rather as St Leo invites us –

Let us rejoice in honour of the Holy Spirit through whom the whole Catholic Church is sanctified and every rational soul is filled. He is the inspiration of faith, the teacher of knowledge, the fountain of love, the sign of chastity, and the cause of all virtue.

After this long period of Paschal feasting, let us also look forward to the forthcoming Apostles Fast, of preparing our hearts for the cleansing, renewing, healing and transformative Power of the Holy Spirit.