When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
Acts 2:1-11 (Epistle of Pentecost)
This weekend we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. It is a three-day event in the Liturgical life of the church. The Saturday before Pentecost is the Saturday of the Souls, where we pray for all of our loved ones who have passed away, remembering also all the saints and faithful people who have been part of our church from the time of Pentecost until the present. Sunday is the feast of Pentecost when we commemorate the Holy Spirit descending on the Apostles and enabling them to spread the Gospel in all the languages known to man. And Monday is affectionately known as the “Monday of the Holy Spirit,” though some call it the feastday of the Holy Trinity.
Examining the Epistle of Pentecost, there are two important things to take away. First, it is that the Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire, and enabled these men, many of whom were simple fishermen and uneducated, to become heralds of the Gospel, preachers of the Good News, leaders of the early church, and able to speak in all the languages known to mankind. How was that possible? The answer is a word we call “grace.” Grace is a quality of the Holy Spirit which completes what is lacking in people. By the Grace of the Holy Spirit were illiterate fishermen able to become dynamic speakers. By the Grace of the Holy Spirit, sinful men, then, and up to today, are able to take on the mantle of leadership in the church, to preach the perfect Christ even though they themselves are far from perfect. Grace is what “effects” all of our sacraments in the church, how ordinary gifts of bread and wine can be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. That is by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is the same grace that enables sinful people to be cleansed of sin in confession, or which enables a man and a woman to be consecrated as a family when they get married, or which enables a sinful man to become a priest of God.
The second thing we take away from this reading concerns languages. The Apostles walked away from Pentecost able to preach the Gospel in all languages. There is a need to spread the Gospel in all languages. This includes all of the spoken languages of the world’s countries and cultures. It also includes the languages of subgroups of the population. For instance, there is a “language” one uses to preach the Gospel to a toddler, a different “language” for a teenager, and yet a different “language” for a senior citizen, even if the spoken language for all three is English. This is why we have Sunday school, summer camps, youth groups and senior groups, to get the Gospel to all people in the “language” they need to hear it in. It is important to remember in the church that the Sunday sermon is not the only place for the Gospel to be preached, or for it to be heard. And the priest is not the only person who can deliver the “sermon.” The Gospel should be preached on the playground, in the office, at home, on the baseball field, and it should be preached by how we act, not only by what we say.
Grace is given to each of us through the sacraments of the church, and even through a simple prayer. And because we each have this grace, we, the ordinary people, are empowered and expected to the do the extraordinary things of faith. Saint Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 4: 12-13, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate.” It is grace that enables us to do all these things.
Every Divine Liturgy is supposed to be a little “Pentecost” for not only we receive Christ in Holy Communion but we receive the Holy Spirit at the time of the consecration, when the celebrant asks God to “send down Your Holy Spirit upon US, and upon these gifts here presented.” (From the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) Before asking God to have the Holy Spirit consecrate our gifts, we ask Him for the Holy Spirit to come down on us, as He did for the Apostles on Pentecost.
One additional liturgical note. There is a reason why the Divine Liturgy is traditionally celebrated in the morning, somewhere between 9:00 a.m. and noon. And it comes from the verses that follow the passage from Acts read on Pentecost. Acts 2: 12-15 reads as follows:
And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.”
The “Hours” refer to the hours of sunlight during the day. The first hour is sunrise, the third hour is mid-morning, the sixth hour is mid-day, the ninth hour is mid-afternoon and the twelfth hour is sunset. The length of the hours differs according to the season of the year. However, because we now have a day with 24 equal hours, the “third hour” would correspond with 9:00 a.m. and the “sixth hour” would correspond with noon. Because Pentecost occurred at the “third hour”, this is why the Divine Liturgy is general held after the third hour and before the sixth hour, between 9:00 a.m. and noon. There are of course, exceptions to this, such as an evening Divine Liturgy at the Nativity or the Midnight Liturgy on Pascha. The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy during Lent is not a full Liturgy, and is prescribed to be celebrated at night. But generally the Divine Liturgy is celebrated between the third and sixth hour. There are no churches where it will be celebrated at noon or mid-afternoon.
The Holy Spirit is light and life, and a living noetic fount. Spirit of wisdom, Spirit of understanding; good, upright, noetic, ruling, purging offences; God and deifying; He is fire issuing from fire, uttering, inciting, distributing the gifts of grace. Through Him the Prophets and the Apostles of God and the Martyrs all were crowned. Strange to hear, strange to see, fire distributed for the apportioning of gifts. (Kekgragaria, from the Vespers of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Experience the grace of the Holy Spirit through prayer. Speak the “language” of the Gospel to whomever you encounter today!