Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Byzantine Feast of Mid-Pentecost

On the Julian calendar, which is one week behind the Gregorian this year, today is the Byzantine feast of Mid-Pentecost (Μεσοπεντηκοστή in Greek; Преполовенїе in Church Slavonic, literally, “mid-way”), the twenty-fifth day after Easter, and thus the half-way point between it and Pentecost. This feast is very ancient, older even than the great Marian feasts which the Roman Rite borrowed from the East at the end of the 7th century. It is also of such importance that, although it is not counted among the Twelve Great Feasts, it nevertheless has an eight-day long After-feast, the Byzantine equivalent of an octave, in the midst of the ongoing After-feast of Easter, which occupies the whole Paschal season until the Ascension.
A Greek icon for the feast of Mid-Pentecost, which represents not the discourse recounted in its Gospel, but the young Christ in the temple speaking with the Doctors of the Law, as narrated in Luke 2, 42-52. This shows Him as the giver of a greater Law which will displace that which governs the worship in the temple, a prominent theme of the Gospel of the feast, John 7, 14-30, and those of the second half of the Easter season. This is also indicated by the fact that although He is a child of twelve, He is physically bigger than the adults around Him. (There does also exist a type of icon for this feast which simply shows Him as an adult speaking in the temple.)
Mid-Pentecost represents an unusual, but by no means unique, Byzantine example of a “feast of devotion” or “Ideenfest.” The latter term was coined by German liturgical scholars to distinguish those feasts which have as their object a truth of the Faith from those which celebrate an event in the Lord’s life. It is highly misleading, both historically and theologically. It is typically applied to Western feasts like Trinity Sunday or Corpus Christi, which alone suffices to demonstrate its gross unsuitability, since the objects of these feasts are not “ideas”, but things that really exist.
Like the feasts of the Saints, feasts of devotion are intimately connected with the life of Christ, which does not end with the Ascension or Pentecost, but continues in His Mystical Body, the Church. For example, the feast of the Holy Trinity is placed on the octave of Pentecost, to indicate that at Pentecost, the Church began to preach the doctrine of the Trinity, which is also the doctrine that man’s salvation is achieved through the Incarnation of God. Corpus Christi celebrates Christ’s abiding presence in His Church in the Sacrament by which He continually renews His life within us, and of which He said, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.”
It is sometimes alleged that the absence of such feasts in the East proves that they are “inauthentic.” This seems to rest on the unjustifiable assumption that the West is for some reason not allowed to develop anything on its own, but also certainly rests on a more basic factual error, since Mid-Pentecost is essentially Corpus Christi for Baptism. The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God on October 1st, which is very popular among the Slavs, is another feast of the same kind, while the version of the Midnight Office used on Sundays is conceptually no different from the western Office of the Holy Trinity.
Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, depicted in a 16th fresco in the Stavronikita Monastery on Mt Athos, by Theophanes the Cretan. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
As I explained yesterday, the six Sundays of the Easter season are divided into two groups in the Byzantine Rite. The first three, Easter itself, and the Sundays of St Thomas and the Myrrh-bearing Women, are dedicated to the Resurrection. The three that follow are named for their Gospels, all taken from St John: of the Paralytic (5, 1-15), of the Samaritan Woman (4, 5-42) and the Blind Man (9, 1-38). All three refer prominently to water, and thus serve as a trait d’union between the two great baptismal feasts of Easter and Pentecost. They also all refer in various ways to the replacement of the Law of Moses by the Law of Christ. This looks back to the final verse of the Gospel of Easter, John 1, 17, “For the law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ”, and forward to Pentecost, which was instituted to commemorate the giving of the Old Law on Mt Sinai, but under the New Covenant, celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the preaching of the Gospel to the whole world.
At Vespers of Mid-Pentecost, there are read three lessons from the Old Testament, as on many other great feasts. The first is a cento of verses from chapters 4-6 of the Prophet Micah, which begins with the words, “The Law will go out from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” “Go out” can also mean “depart”, and in a season when the Gospels are almost all taken from St John, “the word of the Lord” should certainly be understood to mean the Incarnate Word. The Word therefore departs from Jerusalem; this refers to the removal of the worship of God from the city where the healing of the paralytic takes place, made holy by the presence of the temple, which, however, is soon to be destroyed.
The second is a cento of verses from Isaiah 55 and 12, which speak about the waters of baptism; both passages are also read at the solemn blessing of the waters on Theophany, the feast of Christ’s Baptism. “Ye that thirst, come to the water… draw water with joy from the well-springs of salvation.” This refers to the Samaritan woman, who comes to the well to draw water; there she meets the Man whom the Samaritans, a people who keep the law of Moses, but do not worship at the Jerusalem temple, confess to be “truly the Savior of the world.” When the Word has departed from Jerusalem, then “the hour cometh, when neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem shall you adore the Father. … (but) the true adorers shall adore (Him) in spirit and in truth.” (John 4, 21 and 23)
A painting in the cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Kyiv, Ukraine, based on Proverbs 9, 1-11, the first words of which are written in Greek on the building’s cornice. God the Father, with the seven great archangels to either side sends the Holy Spirit down upon the Virgin Mary, who stands in the middle of Wisdom’s house, with the Christ Child in a halo on Her chest, the icon type known as the “Virgin of the Sign.” The steps ascending towards Her are labelled “Faith (cut off by the frame), Hope, Love, Purity, Humility, Grace, Glory”; to the left are shown David, Aaron and Moses, to the right, the four Major Prophets. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In the third passage, Proverbs 9, 1-11, the personified figure of Wisdom, whom the Church Fathers also understand to be the Eternal Word, [1] “built for herself a house”, which is the Church. She then “sent out her servants” to call the unwise and those who lack understanding (i.e. the pagans) to “come, eat my bread, and drink the wine which I have mixed for you”, an obvious symbol of the Eucharist. The word “sent – apesteile” is from the same root as “apostle”, and also of the word “apestalmenos – sent”, which St John gives as the translation of “Siloam”, the name of the pool in which the blind man is healed.
These three readings therefore mirror the three Gospels of the second part of the Easter season.
The Gospel of Mid-Pentecost, John 7, 14-30, is chosen in part for its opening words, “Now about the midst of the feast, Jesus went up into the temple, and taught.” Much more important, however, are Christ’s words about the Old Law: “Did Moses not give you the law? and yet none of you keepeth the law? … If a man receive circumcision on the sabbath day, that the law of Moses may not be broken; are you angry at me because I have healed the whole man on the sabbath day?” This man is the paralytic healed in the Gospel of the previous Sunday.
To this, some in the crowd say, “Have the rulers known for a truth, that this is the Christ? But we know this man, whence he is: but when the Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is.” This echoes the words of the Samaritan woman, “I know that the Messiah cometh, who is called Christ.”
Jesus Himself says, “You both know me, and you know whence I am: and I am not come of myself; but he that sent me is true, whom you know not. I know him, because I am from him, and he hath sent me.” This refers once again to the word “sent” both as the translation of the name of the pool of Siloam, and as the origin of the word “apostles”, those to whom Christ says on the day of the Resurrection, “as the Father hath sent me, I also send you.” (John 20, 21)
Perhaps it is not too much to posit that the ordering of the three Gospels given above, which places the story of the paralytic in chapter 5 before that of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, may have been inspired by this very Gospel.
Every Byzantine liturgical day has an abundance of hymns [2] from which to choose to highlight its significance; those of Mid-Pentecost are particularly beautiful. The two which carry over into the Divine Liturgy, the troparion and kontakion, are as follows.
Troparion The feast being at its mid-point, give Thou my thirsting soul to drink of the streams of piety; for Thou, o Savior, didst cry out to all, “Let Him that is thirsty come to Me and drink. O well-spring of life, Christ our God, glory to Thee.
Kontakion At the coming of the mid-feast of the Law, o Maker and and Master of all, Thou didst say to those present, o Christ God, “Come ye, and draw forth the water of immortality.” Wherefore, we fall down before Thee and faithfully cry out, “Grant to us Thy mercies, for Thou art the Well-spring of our life.
A very ancient poetic form which builds on the theme of the Kontakion, and almost always ends with the same words is called the Ikos.
With the streams of Thy Blood do Thou Water my soul, which is grown dry and barren with the iniquities of my offences, and show it forth to be fruitful in virtues. For Thou didst say to all to come unto Thee, all-holy Word of God, and to draw the water of incorruption, which is living, and purifieth the sins of those who praise Thy glorious and divine Resurrection, granting also, o Good One, to them that know Thee as God, the strength of the Spirit which truly was borne from on high to Thy disciples, for Thou art the Well-spring of our life.
[1] The liturgical texts of the feast itself also speak of Christ as the “wisdom of God” five times. Before the fall of Constantinople, Mid-Pentecost was celebrated as a patronal feast of Hagia Sophia, the church “of Holy Wisdom.”
[2] In the Byzantine Rite, “hymn” is the generic term for compositions which, from a literary point of view, are similar to Roman antiphons, although they tend to be rather longer. They are not at all like the compositions in regular stanzas which we call “hymns” in the West. Their specific names (kontakion, ikos, exapostilarion etc.) refer to their functions, which are now in many cases effectively obsolete.

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