Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Byzantine Gospel of Pentecost

After Nicodemus’ discourse with Christ in chapter 3, he will appear two other times in the Gospel of St John. At the end of chapter 19, he comes to help Joseph of Arimathea bury the Lord, bringing myrrh and aloe. Before that, he is mentioned in chapter 7, in the passage which the Byzantine Rite reads on Pentecost Sunday. (John 7, 37-53 and 8, 12)
On the last, and great day of the festivity, Jesus stood and cried, saying: If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. He that believeth in me, as the scripture saith, Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Now this he said of the Spirit which they should receive, who believed in him: * for as yet the Spirit was not given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Of that multitude therefore, when they had heard these words of his, some said: This is the prophet indeed. Others said: This is the Christ. But some said: Doth the Christ come out of Galilee? Doth not the scripture say: That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was? So there arose a dissension among the people because of him. And some of them would have apprehended him: but no man laid hands on him. The ministers therefore came to the chief priests and the Pharisees. And they said to them: Why have you not brought him? The ministers answered: Never did man speak like this man. The Pharisees therefore answered them: Are you also seduced? Hath any one of the rulers believed in him, or of the Pharisees? But this multitude, that knoweth not the law, are accursed.
Nicodemus said to them, (he that came to him by night, who was one of them:) Doth our law judge any man, unless it first hear him, and know what he doth? They answered, and said to him: Art thou also a Galilean? Search the scriptures, and see, that out of Galilee a prophet riseth not. And every man returned to his own house. ** Again therefore, Jesus spoke to them, saying: I am the light of the world: he that followeth me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.
The first part of this reading makes an obvious and appropriate choice for Pentecost, even though the festivity mentioned at the beginning is the feast of Tabernacles, which takes place in the autumn. From very ancient times, Pentecost has been celebrated alongside Easter as a great baptismal feast. In his treatise in defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, St Basil the Great refers the beginning of this passage to Baptism, when explaining the words of 1 Corinthians 10, “our fathers … drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
The faith in the Spirit is the same as the faith in the Father and the Son; and in like manner, too, the baptism. … as a type, that rock was Christ; and the water a type of the living power of the word; as He says, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” The manna is a type of the living bread that came down from heaven; and the serpent on the standard, of the passion of salvation accomplished by means of the cross, wherefore they who even looked thereon were preserved. So in like manner, the history of the exodus of Israel is recorded to show forth those who are being saved through baptism. (chapter 14)
The Mass of St Basil, by Pierre Subleyras, 1743.
This tradition is shared in various ways by the Roman and Ambrosian liturgies. In the former, it provides the text of the Communion antiphon on the vigil of Pentecost, although the Gospel passage itself is not read on that day. The church of Milan reads the first paragraph (up to the red asterisk) on Easter night at a special Mass said for the newly baptized catechumens, and the same passage (including the words after the asterisk) at the parallel Mass for those baptized on Pentecost.

The question arises, though, as to why the Gospel continues with the discussion of Christ’s origins, the failure of the ministers to arrest Him, and the dispute between Nicodemus and the Pharisees, which would seem at first to have nothing to do with Pentecost.

When the ministers who were supposed to arrest Christ come back without Him, the Pharisees note, as a point against Him, that His followers come not from among themselves or the rulers, but rather, from “this multitude that knoweth not the Law (and) is accursed.” The Jewish feast of Pentecost commemorates the giving of that very Law to Moses on Mt Sinai; in the Synaxarion, broadly the Byzantine equivalent of the Martyrology, the notice for Pentecost states, “This feast we also took from the Hebrew Bible; for just as they celebrate Pentecost, honoring the number seven, and that when they had passed through fifty days from Pascha they received the Law, so we too as we celebrate for fifty days after Pascha receive the all-holy Spirit, who gives laws and guides into all truth and lays down what is pleasing to God.”

The scene known as the “traditio legis - the handing down of the Law”, represented in an ancient Christian sarcophagus now in the Pio-Christian collection of the Vatican Museums. The scroll in Christ’s hands is that of the new Law which replaces the Mosaic Law, and which He consigns to the Apostles for them to teach to all nations.
When read on Pentecost, therefore, these words remind us, as St Paul says in the Epistle to the Galatians (3, 13-14), that “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law … That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Christ Jesus: that we may receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.” This is precisely what happens in the Acts of the Apostles, as first the Jews, and then the Gentiles are baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and begin to live under the new law given to the Church. The Byzantine tradition has a special chant from the same chapter of Galatians, “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ, alleluia,” which is sung on Pentecost in place of the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy Mighty one…”), as also on the other days originally dedicated to the celebration of Baptism, such as Easter and Epiphany.

Part of the dispute also refers to Jesus’ supposed origins in Galilee, whence no prophet comes. When Nicodemus asks for Him to be heard before judgment, in accordance with the Law, the Pharisees say to him sarcastically “Art thou also a Galilean?”, as if to say that he could have no reason to ask this, other than as an act of special pleading for a fellow countryman. Although Christ Himself was born in David’s city of Bethlehem, the Apostles were natives of Galilee; at Pentecost, the Jews from various places who hear them speaking in their local languages ask themselves, “Are not all these that speak Galileans?” (Acts 2, 6) St Peter tells them that what is happening is the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, “I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” This to the Jews; in Acts 10, 37, when he preaches to the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, Peter notes that Christ’s ministry “began from Galilee.” St Paul will later state (Acts 13, 31) that the witnesses to the Resurrection were men who had come with Christ “from Galilee.” Therefore, the Pharisees who prided themselves on their knowledge of the Law and the Scriptures, and spoke of the ignorant as “accursed”, are shown to be wrong, as prophets have indeed arisen from Galilee.

Lastly we may note how at the end, the Gospel jumps from the final verse of chapter 7 to verse 8, 12 (at the point marked above by two asterisks.) The eleven verses not included here are the Pericope of the Adulteress, also sometimes known as the Wandering Pericope. This passage is missing entirely from several important early manuscripts of the Bible, and occasionally appears at the end of Luke 21, rather than the beginning of John 8. Among others, Ss John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria both pass it over in silence in their respective commentaries on the Gospel of St John; the gap in the Byzantine lectionary therefore reproduces the Gospel text before the Pericope of the Adulteress had wandered into it.
A leaf of a ninth-century Greek lectionary. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Grec 277
All this is summed up beautifully in the first Ode of the Byzantine Matins of Pentecost. “Indeed, as Thou once promised Thy Disciples, Thou sent forth the Paraclete, the Spirit, O Christ, and shed light on the world, O Lover of mankind. That which was proclaimed of old by the Law and the Prophets has been fulfilled; for today the grace of the divine Spirit hath been poured out on all believers.”

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