FIFTY DAYS AFTER PASSOVER Jews observe the Feast of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which originated as the conclusion of the Spring harvest season in Israel. Between Passover and Shavuot barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and lastly wheat would be harvested. According to the Biblical command (Deuteronomy 8:8) growers would bind the first fruits of each together and bring it as an offering to the temple. At the time of Christ it was one of the three “pilgrimage festivals” when Jews would come in great numbers to observe the temple rites for the feast. Greek-speaking Jews called this festival Pentecost, the “fiftieth day.”
According to Jewish tradition enshrined in the Talmud, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai fifty days after the Exodus. Thus contemporary Jews often decorate their homes and synagogues with greenery on this feast because of the tradition that Mount Sinai blossomed when the Law was given to Moses.
In the Acts of the Apostles we read how, in the midst of this festive atmosphere, “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled 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 with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).
Our Christian festival, also called Pentecost, remembers this event as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy and of Christ’s promise before His death and resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles records that, immediately after this manifestation, Peter addressed the curious passers-by by citing Joel 2:28-32 (“And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh…”). After recalling the death and resurrection of Christ, Peter went on to say that this prophecy is now fulfilled: “Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33).
It was this outpouring of the Spirit which Christ had promised: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37).
More especially in the Byzantine Churches the Feast of Pentecost celebrates the ultimate manifestation of the Holy Trinity. At the Theophany at Christ’s baptism the Father’s voice bore witness to Christ, confirmed by the presence of the Spirit in the form of a dove. At Pentecost the Father’s gift of the Spirit is manifested within those who received Him. No longer observers of the Spirit’s presence, they became temples of the Holy Spirit “who is in you, whom you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
They Speak with Other Tongues
A much-discussed element in the story of the Spirit’s descent is the so-called gift of tongues: that the apostles “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). A number of today’s Pentecostals and Charismatics see speaking in tongues as a sign (if not the sign) of a truly living faith.
The Church Fathers saw this gift in a different light: given “that it may be advantageous to the salvation of unbelievers” (Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Constitutions). St Cyril of Jerusalem marveled, “What a contrast to their long ignorance in time past to their sudden, complete, varied and unaccustomed exercise of these languages” (Catechetical Lecture 17.16). Theodoret of Cyr noted that this gift “… was given to preachers, because of the diversity of languages, so that one who was going to the people of India might bring the divine preaching in the language used by them. And again, when discoursing with Persians and with Scythians, with Romans and Egyptians they would preach the evangelical doctrine in the languages used by each” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians).
The fourth-century scholar and Bishop of Homs, Eusebius of Emesa thought that this gift also enabled the writing of the New Testament: “[God] gave literary ability to ignorant men so that they could write the Gospels; … He also gave the Roman tongue to Galileans and the languages of the world to His apostles for the teaching, admonition and exhortation of the nations of the world” (Eusebius of Emesa, Discourse 9). Thus the consensus of the Fathers is that the gift of tongues was given to enable the spreading of the Gospel.
The Holy Spirit Guides Us
When the Lord Jesus promised the coming of the Holy Spirit He indicated that this Spirit “…will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26) and that “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). In our day these simple words have been interpreted to mean something very different from what was intended.
Since the Renaissance we have been living in a very individual-centered world. This has enabled us to develop the values of personal freedom and justice we cherish. It has also meant that we see our faith in individualistic rather than in communal terms. While the Scriptures and the historic tradition sees the believer relating to God in the community of the Church, modern man has dismissed the community as being superfluous to an individual believer’s life with God.
In terms of the Pentecost event, many American Christians tend to see the promise of the Holy Spirit as an assurance that God is guiding me. This leads some people to believe that God is calling them personally to serve Him, without that feeling being confirmed. They start their own churches or “ministries” and develop their own following. In their personal life they see themselves as “guided by God” when it is their own inclinations and desires that they are pursuing.
The Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit guides us, but it means that He is preserving and leading the Church rather than leading me. We may well pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit but should expect to see that guidance manifested through the Church. This is why it is so important for committed believers to have a spiritual guide who is well-grounded in the Tradition. With such a guide we can experience the Spirit in the Church in a more personal way.
The Holy Spirit and Us
Many Christians have a fuzzy idea of the Holy Spirit. We can relate to God as Father, which is a human image. We can relate to the Son who actually became human in the Virgin’s womb. But how do we relate to the Holy Spirit ?
Many American Christians have no answer to that question. According to the Ligonier Ministries 2014 online survey of 3000 Western Christians, three-quarters of the respondents (Catholics and Protestants alike) agreed that “the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being.” Perhaps our frequent use of the Creed, the Sign of the Cross and the prayer “O Heavenly King” will keep firm in our hearts the truth that the Holy Spirit is truly our personal God: “the Lord, the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father.”