Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentecost Variations

Within our own venerable Roman tradition, Pentecost is strongly associated with the liturgical colour of red. (And as a liturgical aside, some may be interested to know that while the Roman rite will soon adopt the liturgical colour of green, in the Ambrosian rite, red continues to be used for the time after Pentecost.)

Pentecost at the Pantheon, Rome

However, a variation from this which has always struck me with great interest is the use of green and greenery in at least parts of the Christian East -- namely, for the Slavic portion of it.

We have noted this tradition on the NLM a number of years ago, but this year, I determined to ask the moderator of the Byzantine Catholic website and forum, John Vernoski, if he might write something on the symbolism of this.

I am plesaed to present his piece to you today. A very blessed Pentecost to all NLM readers, Eastern and Western.

* * *

Breathing New Life

by John Vernoski
for the New Liturgical Movement

Remember Ezekiel’s prophecy about the valley of bones? (Ezekiel 37:1-14) What is deader than a valley of dry bones? Byzantines hear this prophecy on the night of Good Friday at the funeral service for the dead Christ (Jerusalem Matins). The Lord speaks to the bones: “Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (verses 5 & 6). Standing at the tomb of Christ, we incense and anoint and venerate the icon of the Savior lying dead. Seeing the lifeless body of the Lord, we hear these words and contemplate the miracle by which God, and only God, can raise the dead, restoring life where it had been lost.

At the Vespers of Pentecost we also read from the Prophecy of Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you” (36:25-26). At the Matins Gospel we hear: “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). In this new feast, God breathes forth his gift of life, and we are given life.

And what symbols of this new life does the Church place before us? Yes, the Church East and West sings about the tongues of fire in which the Lord calls all men to unity. The Latin Church symbolizes this with red vestments. Greek Byzantines use white vestments (matching Christmas and Pascha where the white symbolizes being made whiter then snow in baptism). But for Slavs (both Byzantine and Latin), the color of Pentecost is green. Green is the symbol for new life. The Jews celebrate Pentecost (the Greek name for Shavout, the Feast of Weeks) with offerings of the first fruits of the spring grain harvest (see Deuteronomy 16:9). For the Slavs, however, especially those in the mountains of central and eastern Europe, it was not yet the time of harvest. Spring was in full bloom, crops were just being planted and everything was green. Not the mature green of summer but the new, brilliant green of spring. The Church took the symbols of spring and used them as symbols of this new life in the Spirit. Byzantine Slavs use green vestments. All Slavs wear green clothes, and decorate their churches and houses with green trees and plants (giving a much different meaning to the “wearing of the green”!).

Even as the Lord was able to raise dead bones from Ezekiel’s prophecy to life, so at the mystery of Pentecost we celebrate the triumph of life, the new life that is springing up everywhere in nature, not least in the Christian soul. The Spirit himself breathes upon us and the whole the Church is cleansed and healed. Life is His gift, and adorned with new green branches, and green vesture, we celebrate the fullness of the Resurrection, for not only Christ has been raised from his tomb, but we ourselves have been given new life in his Spirit.

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who are everywhere present and fill all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life, come and dwell within us, cleanse us of all stain, and save our souls, O Good One. (Hymn from Pentecost Vespers)

John Vernoski is a layman in the Byzantine Catholic Church and the webmaster of

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