The Feast of Mid-Pentecost11 May 2023
Having gone through Great Lent, we have lived the event of the Resurrection, which was at the heart of the Christian preaching, even before the Gospels were written. Some commentators note that all the prophecies of the Old Testament about the gift of the Holy Spirit, (like that of Joel: ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh’), referred to the end of times: in their understanding, this was when God would shed His spirit upon earth. However, in the early Christian communities, after the Resurrection and Pentecost, the enthusiasm and zeal of the Christians was stirred up by knowing that they were already living the last times, for they already had a living experience of that Spirit, which was meant to come at the end of the world. God had already given them the earnest of the inheritance to come, and they were expecting the coming again of Christ with a strong zeal, crying ‘Maranatha, Come, O Lord’. Saint Paul says to the Corinthians with such confidence that ‘All the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen.’ What God had promised has come already because He has ‘sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts’. As a result, they felt connected with the end of times, with the Second Coming of the Lord, and were praying, ‘Let the grace of God come and let this world pass away.’
For this reason, for the early Christians, it was not so important when the Lord would come again, because He was already present, as Saint Paul said to the Thessalonians, wanting to turn their attention to the experience of the presence of the Risen Christ there and then, in their prayer and the breaking of bread. To Timothy he says, ‘Remember Jesus Christ raised from the dead.’ And he could say these words with authority, because he had experienced this passage from death to life in his own being. Though he called himself an abomination, ‘one born out of due time’, because he had persecuted the Church, yet, he says, ‘by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace, which was bestowed upon me, was not in vain. For I laboured more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’ The Providence of God brought him often to the threshold of death, but he was delivered again and again, so that he had no confidence in himself, but in Him Who is able to raise the dead.
We say all this about Saint Paul because at Pentecost, the grace of the Holy Spirit penetrated the very nature of man and sealed this passage from death to life permanently, not only intermittently as in the Old Testament. This must be repeated in the life of each one of us, for one cannot be a Christian without having a little measure of this experience, which we see in abundance in our saints. Having passed through the mystery of the Cross, their being was fully penetrated by the sanctification of God. No man can enter the upper chamber of Pentecost without Golgotha; each one lives the mystery of Pentecost in the measure in which he is crucified. Great Lent is indeed a time of repentance, but the period from Easter to Pentecost is a time of even greater repentance, for we see the contrast between the thirst and desire of the Church and the fallenness of our whole nature. We are constantly inclined towards the earth, unable to deliver ourselves from its power. Yet the Church is prompting us these days by stirring up our zeal for the gift of the promise of the Father. Judging our hearts before this conscience of our Church will provoke an earthquake in us and bring us a spirit of repentance, because we clearly perceive that this yearning has been quenched within us, and we cannot say like Saint Silouan, ‘My soul yearns for the living God.’
We quench our thirst for God by following our own will and accepting human consolations. He who lives according to his will, cannot have thirst for God, being satisfied with what he has. He cannot wait for the hour of prayer to finish. Whereas he who cuts his will begins to thirst for God and cannot wait for the hour when he will stand alone before God in prayer. God tries to stir up in us the desire to cleave to Him so that we willingly co-work with Him. In today’s Gospel, wanting to stir up the desire of the paralytic, Christ asked him, ‘Wilt thou be made whole?’ He had been waiting thirty-eight years by that pool, of course he wanted to be made whole. But who wants to undergo the therapy of God? We are often too comfortable with our infirmity and prefer to remain as we are. Yet without this desire on our behalf, God will not impose His healing on us. In his book, ‘Thirst for Life Eternal’, Father Zacharias recommends three prayers, which we can use during this period to stir up our expectation: the Troparion of Mid-Pentecost, the Ikos of Pentecost and Psalm 119. Being inspired by the Holy Spirit, these prayers shift man’s mind from anything that troubles him in the tumult of everyday life, turning it to eternal, unshakeable truths. Said with contrition, such prayers can completely change the state of his heart.
In his chapter on Mid-Pentecost, Father Zacharias quotes Saint John Climacus who says: ‘If a body is changed in its activity from contact with another body, then how can he remain unchanged who touches [by prayer and contemplation] the body of God with innocent hands?’ Indeed, man comes into communion with the grace of God only if he approaches with purity. How can we ever have innocent hands, since we sin even if we live one day in this world? This innocence is given to us by the tears of repentance. It is a gift, but as with the paralytic man, Christ wants our voluntary cooperation. And it is this free disposition that we offer through our tears in prayer. Then we ‘touch the body of God’; our communion with Him becomes so tangible that it changes us entirely so that we can never again seek for earthly consolations. In fact, coming out of such prayer, man would not even consider turning to this world; rather, he wishes he would never come out of such prayer. This wound in the chest caused by repentance and tears is what we see in Saint Silouan: he had such a mighty yearning, that when we read his writings, it is as if we hear hymns of the feast of Pentecost: ‘My soul yearns after the Lord and I seek Him in tears. How could I do other than seek Thee, for Thou first didst seek and find me, and gavest me to delight in Thy Holy Spirit, and my soul fell to loving Thee.’
Question: Father Zacharias says in his book that the Lord educates us more by His absence than by His presence. Could you explain?
Archim. Peter: For the man who has no faith, the absence of Christ is no education. In fact, he is better off without Him, like ‘The Great Inquisitor’ of Dostoevsky who said to Christ: ‘You have done Your share, now leave the matter to us. Better leave us alone.’ God educates through His absence those who have faith in Him and seek for Him. The three years the disciples lived with the Lord was a great school, and this was intensified even more after His Resurrection when He would often appear to them. After the Ascension, He left them for ten days until Pentecost. As the Fathers say, God is like the mother who hides when the child cries, so that we may increase our cry to Him. Saint Silouan laments for having lost God, but in fact he gives witness to the God he possessed irrevocably. This education of God’s absence makes Him our own for ever because in our pain and fear, standing at the brink of eternal perdition, we open our heart to Him inside out; there remains nothing hidden or unhealed. Without this absence, man cannot turn to God with his whole being, as required by the commandment. The Desert Fathers say that if you keep watering a tree, it will eventually die. It also needs periods of dryness for its roots to go deeper. ‘Though now we see Him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable,’ says Saint Peter. The disciples were glad to see the risen Lord, but after Pentecost they had even greater joy ‘that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name’. Suffering for the sake of Christ became their eternal incorruptible crown.
Question: How does the remembrance of the crucified Lord help us in the hour of trial?
Archim. Peter: Once a monk complained to his Elder that a brother was not helping him in his work, and the Elder told him to go and stand before the crucified Christ and read the Troparion we sing on Holy Thursday, which says ‘Every member of Thy holy Body endured dishonour for our sakes: Thy head, the thorns: Thy face, the spitting; Thy cheeks, the buffeting; Thy mouth, the taste of gall mingled with vinegar; Thine ears, the impious blasphemies…’ ‘Then,’ said the Elder, ‘if you dare, come back and complain about your brother.’ Therefore, keeping Christ before our eyes will keep us sinless. ‘I have set the Lord always before me: because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.’
Question: In what way is the fatherhood of God the Father different from the fatherhood of Christ?
Archim. Peter: We must always make a distinction between the life of the Trinity without beginning and the divine dispensation for our salvation that was performed by Christ in history. Within the Trinity, the Father begets the Son and proceeds the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Son ‘begotten from the Father before all worlds’ as we say in the Creed, and ‘the Holy Spirit, the Lord’, is equally God, but proceeds from the Father. These are hypostatic properties that cannot be interchanged. In economy, however, Christ is ‘the Father of the world to come’. Father Sophrony said that we can call Christ ‘Father’ because in Baptism, we are clothed with the energy of the risen Christ and through Him we are begotten into eternity. ‘No man cometh unto the Father, but by me,’ says the Lord.
Question: Could you explain the difference between the soul and the spirit in man?
Archim. Peter: There are certain fixed terms in our doctrines. For example, Christ is ‘of one essence with the Father’. We cannot replace it with a ‘similar’ expression. Yet in the language of the Fathers of the Philokalia, ‘nous’ (mind, intellect) is often used with the meaning of ‘heart’. Sometimes ‘spirit’ is used with the meaning of ‘soul’. The spirit is the gift of God to the soul. It is the highest part of the soul which receives the Holy Spirit. Only the regenerated souls have a spirit. When God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, he became ‘a living soul’, whereas about Christ we say that He is ‘a quickening spirit’. When this Spirit of God comes into man, he becomes a spirit too, that is, he acquires a hypostasis before God.
Question: If we have lost the grace of the Resurrection, how can we keep the zeal alive, especially in this time of Pentecostarion?
Archim. Peter: Indeed, our nature cannot stand for long in the grace of the Resurrection. Yet, just as in Great Lent we were preparing for Easter by tasting a certain death in our flesh through fasting, prostrations, services and confession, so also this period prepares us for the gift of the Holy Spirit. God might not give us the flame of the Comforter on the day of Pentecost when we expect it, but if we seek for it diligently, from our heart, God will not confound us: He will give it when He knows it is better. What is important is to seek for it. And in that, we are helped by the services and hymns of the Church, the Scriptural readings of this period, which all stir up our expectation for the gift of the Holy Spirit. In a way, this period has an even greater tension. The Fathers of the Philokalia say that praxis is the springboard on which we step to ascend to contemplation, to knowledge. This period of the Pentecostarion was preceded by Great Lent, a time of more intense work on the practical level of virtues. And if we lived properly this period of praxis, our prayer should come more easily, we should experience the power of the Name of Jesus Christ. He who repents weeping with many tears, has his heart ready to pray effortlessly with the Name of Christ. When tears prepare the heart, the Name comes ‘as morning dew’.
Question: How can we rejoice in our sufferings like the apostles after Pentecost?
Archim. Peter: They rejoiced because they loved the Master. It is love that generates in the heart the desire to suffer for the Beloved. As He showed His love to us through His sufferings, likewise, when the soul is wounded by the love of Christ, she desires to suffer for His sake. This is a mystery: in this world, divine love is expressed through pain and suffering. As that Elder Isidore who would eat his food standing until old age said: ‘Whatever I suffered is still nothing, because while we were sinners, Christ was crucified for us.’ Thus, the desire to suffer comes to the soul as a natural response after she has been wounded by the image of the Lamb of God led to the slaughter.
Question: When someone wrongs us, we feel pain and tend to react by justifying ourselves. What helps us to remain silent in that moment?
Archim. Peter: I myself am very poor, but I think something that helps us greatly is the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Every time we are touched in our prayer by the Spirit of God, which burns our heart and illumines our mind, a great fear not to offend Him falls upon us. Then any negative word is cut like with a knife before it comes out of the mouth. We do not allow ourselves to answer back. Whereas he who has no communion with the grace of God, or has very little, is very quick to answer back. This is a criterion to discern regenerated souls from those that are not yet born anew from the Spirit. As soon as you touch them a bit, they retaliate, and this shows they lost the grace of God. Grace is like a secret friend in our heart who tells us constantly: ‘Do not say this word, otherwise I will leave you. Do not do this action; otherwise, you will remain on your own.’ Thus, we are preserved in the fear of God, which is the beginning of true wisdom. Then we prefer things eternal for things temporal, things incorruptible for things corruptible.