Why is Pentecost a major feast in the Orthodox Church?

June 12, 2019

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.


Why is Pentecost a major feast celebrated in the Coptic Orthodox Church? We can maybe say that its an important historical moment in the lives of the apostles, but why celebrate it today in the liturgical life of the Church? Well, the truth is many of us may have difficulty in answering this question because we have yet to discover the significance of this extremely important moment in the life of the Church. To better understand it, let’s begin by examining a few key things.


Firstly, the specific name of Pentecost. This word is borrowed from the Greek name of the Jewish festival Shavuot. Shavuot is a Hebrew word the simply means “weeks” and so it signifies the Festival of weeks mentioned in the Old Testament. It is one of the three major Jewish pilgrimage festivals which holds two important meanings to the Jews: 1) It marks the wheat harvest in Israel as mentioned in Exodus 34:22, and 2) it commemorates the anniversary of the day when God gave the law and the commandments to Moses and the people of Israel. This Jewish feast is held 50 days after Passover of the Jews, and so it was called Pentecost by the Hellenic Greek community – simply meaning “fiftieth day”.


The Early Church held on to this tradition of calling it Pentecost because 50 days after the Great Christian Passover – the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ – we see that the Lord now grants humanity a new gift, different from that which was given to Moses. While in the old testament humanity receives the law written on tablets of stone, in the New Testament the apostles and humanity now receive the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Life-giver and Comforter which was promised to us by the Lord.


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In the book of Acts, we hear about how the apostles of the Lord along with the Holy Virgin Mary gathered together in prayer 50 days after the Passover. St Luke describes to us the following event:


“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 2:1-4)


Now, this descent of the Holy Spirit is of crucial importance for us to understand. Humanity had long been in a state of alienation from God. In Genesis chapter 2 we read of how God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed in him the breath of life, which the Church, and more specifically St Cyril of Alexandria, teaches us that this breath was God’s very own Holy Spirit. Now after the fall, the Lord says in Genesis chapter 6 that His Spirit cannot dwell with man forever because of our current state… And so ever since the fall, we have lost the indwelling of the Holy Spirit because we have estranged ourselves from God. And while we still see the Spirit of God aiding the people, working alongside them, even visiting them, the human being can no longer be a temple of the Holy Spirit because of the fall! However, ever since the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s perfect plan of salvation, we now have new hope.


In the feast of Theophany, we see the Lord Jesus Christ as a perfect man, be the first human being since the fall to receive the Holy Spirit. He makes way for us to now also receive God’s Spirit within us. In His death and resurrection, He defeats the great enemy of mankind which is death and offers a new path to reconciliation and eternal life with God. And in His ascension, the Lord has reconciled the heavenly with the earthly as He takes what is ours and seats it at the right hand of the Father. Every step has been accounted for and now, for the first time since Adam and Eve, on the great day of Pentecost, we see humanity receiving the Holy Spirit who not only works alongside them but dwells within them! It is this moment in the life of the Church that then enables us today to baptize new believers in the name of the All-Holy Trinity and then through chrismation, impart to them the Holy Spirit to dwell within them for the rest of their lives. And so, every believer has participated in their very own death and resurrection with Christ in baptism and has also had their very own Pentecost in receiving the Holy Spirit in Chrismation.


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Now the feast of Pentecost that we celebrate is so important that we often refer to is as the birthday of the Church – when the Church of God Almighty was now ready, born of God to enter into the world and preach the gospel of salvation. Born of God now because our time of maturity had finally arrived because we were granted to given the Holy Spirit once again. And the world would have been incapable of hearing the message of God from us unless we had the Spirit of God dwelling within us and guiding our every step.


In the creed, we recite and say that the Lord Jesus Christ did all things “for us and for our salvation…” And indeed, even this sending of the Spirit is for the Salvation of the world and has made His kingdom accessible to all. Now that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and the Lord having granted His Holy Spirit to dwell within us, we are now that much closer to the kingdom of God. My beloved, It is truly a marvelous thing for us as Christians to believe that the Heavenly King, the comforter, the Spirit of truth, the life-giver, He is both present within us and fills all things. You carry Him within you every moment of your life because of this great feast. And so, you now have access to Kingdom of Heaven both here and now! Notice how the Church recites the hymn “Let us Praise (also known as Asomen)” after the feast of Pentecost!  It is chanted all throughout the entire Apostles fast as a reminder of the joy that we carry within us. In this hymn, we say the words


“He made the two into one, that is the heaven and the earth.

He ascended into the heavens and sent to us the Paraclete,

The Spirit of truth, the Comforter. Amen Alleluia.”


There is no more ceiling between me and the kingdom of God, it is truly at hand – ready for the taking. The Spirit of God dwells in me, I am a temple of the Holy Spirit, and so life with God begins now – not later!! St Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the incredible moment of Pentecost that the apostles have lived.  He says that the Lord wanted to ensure that what happened that day would serve as a witness to the fact that these people now have the living God working with them. He says the following:


“And lest people should be ignorant of the greatness of the mighty gift coming down to [the apostles], there sounded as it were a heavenly trumpet. For suddenly there came from heaven a sound as of the rushing of a mighty wind, signifying the presence of Him who was to grant power to people to seize with violence the kingdom of God, that both their eyes might see the fiery tongues and their ears hear the sound. And it filled all the house where they were sitting; for the house became the vessel of the spiritual water; as the disciples sat within, the whole house was filled.” [St Cyril of Jerusalem: CATECHETICAL LECTURE 17.15]


While we celebrate Pentecost as a historical event in the life of the Church, we also celebrate it as a daily reminder of the Holy Spirit that we have living and working within us. God within us my beloved! A bold claim indeed. No one else would dare make such a claim. But to the Christian, the celebration of Pentecost is one where we declare that we have faith that God now works with us, through us, and dwells within us!

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