Monday, June 09, 2014

Liturgical Theology of Pentecost

A colleague shared with me the beautiful description of the traditional Roman Vigil for Pentecost that was posted by The Rad Trad here.  I was struck by the profundity of the ritual, and I delighted in the similarity between East and West’s observance of the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost.  Whereas Christians of the Byzantine Tradition stop singing the song which is characteristic of the Easter season, the traditional Latin observance is to snuff the Paschal Candle.  But in both cases, the traditions want to stress that this absence of the Risen Christ is different than the absence of Good Friday.  As St. Luke notes, after the Ascension, the Apostles “went back full of joy to Jerusalem, where they spent their time continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.”  These last ten days of waiting were joyful days, and so the darkness of the absent Paschal Candle, or the silence of the bells and the Paschal Troparion are filled with joyful expectation.  In the Byzantine Tradition, we still stand for those ten days; the kneeling does not return until its dramatic re-appearance for Pentecost Monday.  (Hopefully, I’ll be able to write on that at another time.  Pentecost is an octave, so maybe even for this year.)

While one could say many things about the comparisons and contrasts of the two traditions, I was struck by a common element that both Traditions transmit: Pentecost is in some sense the culmination of the entire movement of salvation history.  The Paschal Candle is lit for the sake of lighting the Pentecostal tongues of fire, and so the Latin Church plunges the flame into the heart of her Vigil, and sings the Holy Saturday Alleluia, to show, that, as the Rad Trad writes, “Pentecost makes the Resurrection permanent on earth, preserved in the Church unto ages of ages.”

What is evidenced by these dramatic gestures of the Latin Church, is verbalized within the Byzantine vesper service.  Following the lead of St. Athanasius who declared that the entire point of the Incarnation was to divinize man through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church sings that Pentecost is the last and final day of the Feast of Pascha.  On the vespers for Sunday evening, we note that today everything was totally accomplished, including the fulfillment of Christ’s Incarnation and Paschal Mystery. 

Like the Latin tradition, the Byzantine tradition traces the story of Pentecost through the Old Testament readings at the vigil, however, there are only three readings in contrast to the five Old Testament readings in the Latin Rite.  The first is from the Book of Numbers, so that, like the Latins, the Byzantines portray Moses as a type of Christ.  The focus for the Byzantines, however, is the Lord giving the seventy elders a portion of the spirit of Moses such that they are able to prophesy.  The reading ends with Moses prayer, “Would that all the People of Israel could prophesy!”  

There are other references to the story of Moses in the Matins service.  The Katavasia at the end of Ode 1, following the verse that declares Pentecost as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, sees Moses as a prefigurement of the Pentecostal revelation, singing, 
Enveloped by the Divine cloud, the man of unsure speech taught the Law written by God; wiping the dust from his eyes, he saw the One Who Is, and was initiated into the knowledge of the Spirit.
The Katavasia at the end of the eighth ode points to the burning bush and the three youth in the furnace as prefigurements of today’s feast.  The flames do not consume the Apostles, and those who were formerly of unsure speech become ambassadors to the world.

The second reading is from the prophet Ezekiel.  The dry-bones prophecy that the Latin Church employs for the Vigil of Pentecost is the final Old Testament reading for the Byzantine Tradition’s Easter Vigil.  For Pentecost Eve our reading is from the chapter just prior: 
And then I will pour cleansing streams over you, to purge you from every stain you bear, purge you from the taint of your idolatry. I will give you a new heart, and breathe a new spirit into you; I will take away from your breasts those hearts that are hard as stone, and give you human hearts instead. I will make my spirit penetrate you, so that you will follow in the path of my law, remember and carry out my decrees. 
 The resurrection of the dry bones, prophesied on Easter Vigil, is now linked to a new heart, cleansing water, and a penetrating spirit.  The Gospel proclaimed at Liturgy on Sunday stresses the fulfillment of this theme (Jn. 7:37-39):
 On the last and greatest day of the feast Jesus stood there and cried aloud, If any man is thirsty, let him come to me, and drink;  yes, if a man believes in me, as the scripture says, Fountains of living water shall flow from his bosom. He was speaking here of the Spirit, which was to be received by those who learned to believe in him; the Spirit which had not yet been given to men, because Jesus had not yet been raised to glory.
The resurrection of the body is realized through the purifying gift of the living water of the Spirit.  Pascha is achieved through Pentecost, the last and greatest day of the Feast.

The last Old Testament reading for the Vigil (depending on the tradition) is from the prophet Joel.  On the Wednesday of Cheesefare Week, the Church read the first Old Testament reading for her Lenten cycle, and so it is fitting that the prophet Joel also be the last Old Testament reading for Paschal season.  Before the beginning of Great Lent, Joel had proclaimed (Joel 2:15-17): 
 The day of the Lord is coming; his the dominion, his the doom...Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, "Spare thy people, O Lord,
But now, the day of the Lord has arrived, and through the prophet Joel the Lord promises: 
I will pour out my spirit upon all mankind, and your sons and daughters will be prophets. Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men see visions; everywhere servants of mine, handmaids of mine, inspired to prophesy! I will shew wonders in heaven, and on earth blood, and fire, and whirling smoke.
Russian icon, circa 17th century.  In the Byzantine tradition the Pentecost icon is an icon of the meaning of Spirit's presence in the Church more than a historical recreation of the event. Normally, the center seat (the teacher's seat) is left empty to show Christ is the teacher even when not present on earth, and in his absence, the Spirit governs through the Apostles.  In this icon, however, the Theotokos is placed in the central seat to highlight the Russian idea that it is the saint, in this case the most perfect saint, who makes Christ present in a visible way in His Church. Icons of the Ascension have Mary at center point to communicate the same idea.
The Day of Lord has come.  With heaven shown the wonder of a man triumphantly ascending as King of the angels, and earth newly washed in the blood of the Lamb, the fire and whirling cloud of the Spirit have descended upon the earth.  The Law, the Prophets have been looking forward to this day.  And it is this day that completes the feast of feasts, not by surpassing it, but by extending it through time.  For this reason the Icon of Pentecost pictures Mark, Luke, and Paul sitting in the Cenacle. [See Gregory DePippo's post below for a great icon that communicates this idea.]  Today is not the merely a historical event, but the celebration of the reality of the resurrection made permanently present in the Church.  The Spirit that descended on the Eleven and made them prophesy is the same Spirit that descends on the later evangelists and Apostle to the Gentiles.  Today, the last and greatest day of the feast, is a day that gives placement to every Sunday hence.  For the rest of the year, all Sundays are Sundays after Pentecost, and it is by their link to Pentecost that these Sundays continue as little Easters.
Hence, today, for East and West, is the summation of the story.  And so the Priest prays at the conclusion of Sunday evening vespers:
May he who emptied himself and came forth from the bosom of God the Father, and descended from heaven upon the earth, and took upon himself our entire nature and rendered it divine, and after that ascended again into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father, who also sent down upon his holy disciples and apostles the divine and Holy Spirit who is equal in substance, in power, in glory, and in eternity, who enlightened the apostles by the Holy Spirit and through them the whole world, may the same Christ our true God, through the prayers of his most holy Mother; through the might of the precious and life-giving Cross; through the prayers of the holy, glorious, and praiseworthy apostles, heralds of the divinity and bearers of the Spirit; and through the prayers of all the saints have mercy on us.

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