The birthday of the Church
The feast of the Holy Trinity (otherwise, Pentecost) is dedicated to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Christ. This event brought into existence the Church of Christ and gave rise to the Christian faith on earth. On the feast of Pentecost the Church brings its children to the doors of its spiritual life and appeals to them to renew and strengthen in themselves the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to them in Baptism. Spiritual life of an individual is impossible without God’s grace, which possesses the mysterious power of rebirth and transforms the whole of the Christian’s inward life. However lofty and valuable his desire might be, it will be fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. That is why the feast of Pentecost is always so joyfully celebrated by Orthodox Christians.
Throughout all of history God gradually revealed himself to mankind. During Old Testament times people knew only about God the Father. Since the birth of the Savior they learned of his Only-begotten Son, and on the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit people learned of the existence of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. Thus mankind was instructed to believe and praise God, one in essence and Threefold in Persons, that is, God the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity one and indivisible.
In this pamphlet we will describe the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, account for the importance of God’s grace in Christian life and recount the service of Pentecost. We will include the canon of the Matins service and give the Orthodox treatment of the contemporary “gift of tongues.” The appendix contains selected prayers of the Pentecostal Vespers service.
The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles on the day of Pentecost is described by the Evangelist Luke in the initial chapters of his book “Acts of the Holy Apostles.” It was God’s will to make this event a turning point in the world’s history.
Pentecost, celebrated on the fiftieth day after the Jewish Passover, was one of the three major holidays of the Old Testament. Pentecost marked the adoption of Sinai’s legislation under the Prophet Moses when the Jewish people were liberated from Egypt and entered into alliance with God nearly fourteen hundred years before Christ’s birth. At that time the Jews promised to be obedient to God and He, in turn, promised them His mercy and blessings. Because the feast of Pentecost coincided with the end of the harvest season, it was celebrated with great joy. Many Jews scattered over various parts of the vast Roman empire hurried to Jerusalem to participate in this feast. Having been born and having grown up in different countries, most of them could hardly understand their mother tongue. They made an effort, however, to observe their national and religious traditions and, at least from time to time, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The descent of the Holy Spirit was not an unexpected event for the Apostles. As far back as a few centuries before the Savior’s birth God began to prepare people for the day of their spiritual rebirth. He promised through his prophets: “It shall come to pass afterward, that I shall pour out My Spirit on all flesh … With joy you will draw water from the well of salvation … For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground … A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and observe and carry out My judgements” (Joel 2: 28; Is. 12: 3, 44:3; Ezek. 11:19-20).
When preparing to return to His heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus Christ in His farewell talk informed the Apostles about the forthcoming descent of the Holy Spirit. He explained to the disciples that the Comforter, that is, the Holy Spirit, would come soon to them to fulfill the mission of salvation: “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, to be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth … He will teach you everything and remind you of everything that I say unto you … He, the Spirit of Truth, which proceeds from the Father, will bear witness of Me” (John 14: 16-17, 26; 15: 26).
After the events of outrage, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, which the Apostles took deeply to their hearts, they became quite different people. They grew stronger spiritually and matured to accept the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It was then that God’s mercy came to them in its fullness and they were the first to enjoy the spiritual fruits of the salutary feat of the God-Man.
Fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and ten days after His Ascension to Heaven, the disciples of Jesus, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary, some of the pious women and other believers, 120 persons in all, gathered in Jerusalem in a so-called “Zion chamber.” They were probably in the same room where the Lord, not long before His sufferings, performed the Last Supper. The Apostles were awaiting the fulfillment of the Savior’s will to send them “the Father’s Promise” and strengthen them with divine power, although they did not understand yet exactly what that meant.
Then, at nine in the morning, when people usually came to the Temple for sacrifices and prayers, a noise came from heaven like a strong gust of wind. It filled the house, and at the same instant there appeared above the Apostle’s heads what appeared to be tongues of flame which began descending on their heads. These tongues possessed a peculiar property to give light and not burn. But still more unusual were the special gifts they imparted. Everyone upon whom they descended became spiritually enriched and felt an ineffable joy and inspiration. They would begin to perceive themselves to be quite different people: pacific, full of life and a strong love for God. These innermost feelings before unknown were expressed by the Apostles through joyful exclamations and glorifications of God. It turned out that now they were not speaking their native Hebrew language but other tongues unknown to them. In that way the Apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire just as it was prophesied by John the Baptist.
Meanwhile, this sound, as if from a mighty wind, drew lots of people to the Apostles’ house. Having seen people gathering from everywhere, the Apostles, rendering gratitude and praises to Almighty God in their prayers, appeared on the balcony of the house. On hearing the prayers, all those gathered around the house were amazed by the event, which was utterly incomprehensible to them. Christ’s disciples, mostly Galilean in origin, had little education and were not expected to speak tongues other than their own. But now, after the miracle, they were speaking many foreign languages so that, however diverse the crowd of people might be (for they came to Jerusalem from different countries), they all heard their native tongues. There happened to be some cynics among the crowd who laughed at godly preachers and dared to say that the Apostles had become drunk from wine. But in reality the power of the Holy Spirit, besides other inner favorable changes, was being revealed by the extraordinary gift of tongues so that the Apostles would be able to propagate the Gospel more successfully among different nations without the need to learn foreign languages.
Having seen the people’s perplexity the Apostle Peter came forward to deliver his first sermon. He explained to them that in the wonderful event of the descent of the Holy Spirit there came true an ancient prophecy of Joel which spoke on behalf of God: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, said the Lord, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. Even upon My menservants and maidservants of those days, I will pour out my Spirit; and wonders will be seen in heaven above and on the earth below … ” (Joel 2: 28-32). The Apostle Peter explained that through this very event there had been achieved the great feat of the salvation of mankind. It was for their sake that the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, came to them, underwent crucifixion and was resurrected. However short and simple this sermon was, it penetrated into the hearts of the listeners for it was the Holy Spirit who spoke by Peter’s mouth.
Most of the people who were listening to Saint Peter were touched deeply in their souls, and they asked him, “What shall we do now?” “Repent,” was Peter’s answer, “and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Many of them came to believe in Christ after the words of Peter, repented publicly their sins and were baptized. So by the evening of the same day the Christian Church increased from 120 to 3000 believers. This miraculous event gave rise to the existence of the Christian Church, the blessed community of believers summoned to save their souls. Jesus Christ promised that His Church would be invincible against the gates of Hell until the very end of the existence of the world.
It did not occur by chance that two very important events took place on the same day: the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Jewish Pentecost. The traditional feast of Pentecost marked the alliance of the Jewish people with God. This alliance required the observation of the Ten Commandments and promised the reception of earthly blessings. The descent of the Holy Spirit implemented a completely novel and much deeper alliance, or Testament, between God and the New Israel – the Christian people. It is based on faith in the Savior and its goal is the spiritual renewal and inheritance of eternal life. The descent of the Holy Spirit has become the day on which the old theocracy, which ruled society through a rigorous law, became replaced by grace and sincere love for God. Now the Spirit of Truth became the guide of believers for their journey to Heaven, and the source of their spiritual freedom and inspiration.
Every person carries seeds of goodness. But no seed can germinate and ripen without moisture and light. For this reason everyone who truly craves righteousness has to recognize that without God’s help, without His support and guidance, any progress in spiritual life is impossible. Being aware of the lack of godly feelings within himself, a pious man of Old Testament times appealed to God: “My soul yearns for Thee, as the barren soil” (Ps. 143).
God’s grace renews our soul, purifies our conscience, enlightens our mind, strengthens in us the faith, directs our will to goodness, warms our heart with genuine love, elevates our thoughts, and revives our whole nature. As witnessed by many holy men and women, God’s grace brings so much peace and joy into the human soul that all earthly advantages and pleasures seem to be negligible in comparison with it.
Since the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, everyone newly baptized is linked to the miracle of Pentecost through the sacrament of Chrismation. In this Sacrament, which usually is performed right after Baptism, the newly baptized is favored with the same gifts of the Holy Spirit which the Apostles received 2000 years ago. The power of this sacrament is so great and everlasting that it, like Baptism, is never repeated. Subsequent sacraments such as Confession and Eucharist, church services, private prayers, fasting, acts of mercy and a virtuous life are aimed at strengthening in a Christian the divine gift he has already received in Chrismation.
God’s grace possesses the extaordinary power of renewal. This becomes apparent in the profound inner and outward changes which take place in the person who has opened his heart to God. As a most vivid example we may refer to the Apostles, who were known first as simple, uneducated fishermen possessing no obvious talents. But once the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they became so enriched spiritually and gained such wisdom and strength that they brought to faith not only simple peasants but philosophers and noblemen as well. Their words, inspired by God’s grace, penetrated into the most hardened hearts. They disposed the sinners to repentance, the selfish to righteousness and pointed the idle to diligence. Doubtful and timid as they were during the Savior’s life, the Apostles after the descent of the Holy Spirit were transformed into bold preachers of the Kingdom of Heaven. It was a result of the divine gifts they were given that so many Christian communities appeared already during the first century in many parts of the Roman Empire and outside it: from Scythia to North Africa, and from Spain to Persia and India. Thus, owing to their enthusiasm, Christianity began spreading all over the world, bringing with it the renewal of society. The humanitarian principles of helping the poor and protecting the weak, the equality of all before God, and the recognition of human dignity were first proclaimed by the Apostles. These principles were unknown to the pre-Christian pagan society.
It is instructive to read the book “Acts of the Holy Apostles,” which illustrates the profound changes that were happening to society as it became renewed by the grace of God. Indeed, we see how former unbelievers, who had been driven by selfish desires and had no higher aspirations, after turning to Christ and receiving the Holy Spirit, became deeply believing, pious men filled with diligence and ardent love for God and people. “They (the newly baptized),” we read in the book of Acts, “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teachings and fellowship, to the breaking of bread (Communion) and prayers … And all who believed were together and had all things in common: and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as need directed. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and finding favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common … There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 2: 42-47; 4: 32-35). In short, all sinfulness and brutality inside of them has been substituted by meekness, love and aspiration for the divine.
As our Savior teaches, the desire for spiritual life comes to a person only from the Holy Spirit. It is not a naturally occurring disposition. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God … That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3: 5-6). The Savior taught that the Holy Spirit guides a person in the truth, comforts him in sorrow and satisfies his spiritual thirst. The Apostle Paul calls all Christian virtues gifts of the Holy Spirit. He says: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5: 22-23). It often occurs that the inner spiritual growth and activity of a Christian is developed unbeknownst to him, as the Lord explained in the parable of a scattered seed. The Savior told about the miraculous effect of the Holy Spirit on the human soul: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3: 8).
Besides general spiritual gifts necessary for the inner grouth of every Christian, the Holy Spirit grants to certain persons special gifts needed for them to be ministers of the Church and Christian society. About these gifts the Apostle Paul writes: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophesy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each individually as He wills” (1 Cor. 12: 7-11).
Every Christian, being a live temple of the grace of the Holy Spirit, must preserve himself from any foulness and sin. Saint Paul admonished some Corinthian Christians who forgot about this: “Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? … If any one destroys God’s temple (by his immoderation) then God shall destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple is you” (1 Cor. 3: 16-17).
In His parable about the Ten maidens the Lord spoke of the necessity of preserving and increasing spiritual gifts. Without them a Christian becomes like a lamp without oil (Mat. 25: 1-13). When explaining this parable, Saint Seraphim Sarovski said that the main purpose of our life is the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Although the beneficial power of the Holy Spirit is given to a believer not according to his merits but by God’s mercy, it increases in him in proportion to his diligence in the Christian life. Saint Isaac the Syrian writes in this connection: “To what degree a man advances towards his God intentionally, in like manner God advances towards him with His Grace.” Thus Saint Peter directs Christians: “His Divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the Divine nature. For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Pet. 1: 3-7).
The Apostle Paul urges Christians to invite God’s grace by righteous living and prayers, saying: “Walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true … be filled with the Spirit, addressing yourselves with psalms and words of glory, singing praises to the Lord with all your hearts” (Eph. 5: 8-19).
In the Orthodox Church it is customary to begin all private prayers as well as church services by first addressing the Holy Spirit in a special prayer and asking Him to renew His grace within us. This prayer, which starts with the words “O Heavenly King,” is remarkable in that it consists of the words said by our Lord Jesus Christ and it guides a Christian toward what is important to ask from God.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
Here we address the Holy Spirit as “Heavenly King” because He is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, equal to the Father and His Son. He is called the Comforter because He consoles the believers and gives them joy in time of grief. He is called the Spirit of Truth as He reveals to the faithful the realities of spiritual life and helps them to love the truth. He is omnipresent because the divine nature has no bounds or obstacles. He is called the treasury of blessings and the giver of Life as He is the ultimate source of everything that is of value. He gave life to all of nature and, in particular, higher spiritual life to human beings and angels.
Addressing the Holy Spirit in this way, we ask Him, the Almighty, to cleanse us from every passion which originates within us or attaches to us in dealing with sinful people. We ask Him to stay within us and guide us to eternal salvation. When praying to the Holy Spirit and asking for different spiritual gifts, one should preserve a humble attitude and recognize his unworthiness because “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”