Introduction to the Feast
This major feast in the Church commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the head of the apostles on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection (Acts 2:1-4). This was in fulfillment of the promise made by Jesus before His crucifixion: “The counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Ten days after the Ascension, the apostles were gathered together in prayer in the upper room of Saint Mark’s home in Jerusalem. Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven of rushing wind, and it filled the house where they were praying. Then, there appeared tongues of fire resting on each of the apostles’ heads, and they began to speak in tongues.
A multitude of people gathered around the house and heard the apostles speaking. Since it was the Jewish feast of Pentecost, there were people gathered there from all nations that had travelled to Jerusalem, and they heard the apostles speaking in their own native language. The people questioned what this meant, and St. Peter stood before them and delivered a sermon, showing to them from the scriptures that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God incarnate, and that He was crucified and resurrected. He also spoke to them about the descent of the Holy Spirit which was prophesied in Joel 2:28-32. After St. Peter’s sermon, the people were “cut to the heart” and repented and were baptized. That day, three thousand people were baptized and added to the church.
The feast of Pentecost is so important that we often refer to it as the birthday of the Church. This is when the Church of God, Almighty was now ready to enter the world and preach the gospel of salvation. This marks the birth of the Church as our time of maturity had finally taken place since we were granted to be given the Holy Spirit once again. The world would have been incapable of hearing the message of God from us, unless we first had the Spirit of God dwelling within us and guiding our every step.
In the creed, we recite and say that the Lord Jesus Christ did all things “for us and for our salvation…” And indeed, even the sending of the Spirit is for the Salvation of the world and has made His kingdom accessible to all. Now that we are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, and the Lord having granted His Holy Spirit to dwell within us, we are now that much closer to the kingdom of God. It is truly a marvelous thing for us as Christians to believe that the Heavenly King, the comforter, the Spirit of truth, the life-giver, He is both present within us and fills all things.
Significance of the Feast
The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates seven major feasts of the Lord:
- Entry into Jerusalem (Hosanna Sunday)
These are considered major feasts because they all relate to the events in the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ that are essential to our salvation. Although Pentecost is a feast commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit, it is also a feast of the Lord because it is the fruit of His works. Unless our Lord, Jesus Christ had died on the cross, resurrected from the dead, and ascended to the heavens to present Himself before the Father as a perfect sacrifice, we would not have been able to receive the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost is also an essential moment in the salvation of the church and our own personal salvation. The descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles opens the door for the church to participate in the salvation that was made available to us through our Lord, Jesus Christ. By receiving the Holy Spirit, we are transformed into temples of God, and the Spirit of God rests within us (1 Corinthians 3:16). Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we can participate in all the life-giving gifts that were offered to us through the sacraments of the church. All the acts of salvation completed by our Lord, Jesus Christ; His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into the heavens, cannot be accessible to us without the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
Why did the Ascension take place prior to the Pentecost?
- The Holy Spirit departed man as a result of sin “and the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh” Genesis 6:3. In order for the Holy Spirit to dwell in man, man first had to be free from sin. When Our Lord Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, He presented to the Father a perfect man without sin as an acceptable sacrifice, “with His own blood, He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Only after Christ entered into Heaven, the most Holy Place, was mankind allowed to receive the Holy Spirit.
- “But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:39). The word “glorified” in this verse refers to the ascension. It was not possible for the Holy Spirit to descend on the apostles before Christ was first glorified in the ascension. The dwelling of the Holy Spirit on the church is the glorification of the church, and it was necessary for the Head of the Body who is our Lord, Jesus Christ to be glorified before the Body.
Pentecost in the Old Testament:
Pentecost is a Greek word meaning the fiftieth day. This was a Jewish feast held 50 days after Passover. It was also known as the Feast of Weeks and It celebrated the first fruits of the wheat harvest. “You shall count seven weeks for yourself; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the grain. Then, you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord, your God, with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. (Deuteronomy 16: 9-10). It was one of the three pilgrimage feasts in which all the Jews were to journey to the temple with offerings. During this time, Jerusalem was filled with devout Jews and proselytes.
- In the Jewish rituals of that time, the first sheaf reaped from the barley harvest, which was presented to God at Passover. However, at Pentecost, the firstfruits of the wheat harvest were presented to God; therefore, Pentecost is called the day of the firstfruits (Numbers 28:26). Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwellings two wave loaves of two-tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour; they shall be baked with leaven. They are the firstfruits to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:16)
- Jewish tradition also taught that Pentecost marked the day when the Law was given to Israel. The Jews sometimes called Pentecost Simchath Torah, or “Joy of the Law.” The account is given in Exodus 19 and 20, when God tells Moses that He will appear before the children of Israel on Mount Sinai, and that they should consecrate themselves to see Him. Three days later, God appeared to them on Mount Sinai: “Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19:18)
Pentecost in the New Testament:
The significance of the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost in the Old Testament finds its true meaning after the Pentecost in the New Testament.
- Dost thou perceive the type? What is this Pentecost? The time when the sickle was to be put to the harvest, and the ingathering was made. See now the reality, when the time was come to put in the sickle of the word: for here, as the sickle, keen-edged, came the Spirit down. For hear the words of Christ: “Lift up your eyes,” He said, “and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest.” (John 4:35.) And again, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few.” (Matthew 9:38.) But as the first-fruits of this harvest, He himself took, and bore it up on high. Himself first put in the sickle. Therefore also He calls the Word the Seed. In the Old Testament, the Feast of Weeks celebrated the beginning of the harvest of wheat. However, in the New Testament, it is the day in which the apostles received the Holy Spirit and began their evangelism. The Lord, Jesus Christ planted the word as a seed, and on the day of Pentecost the apostles went out to harvest the word through the work of the Holy Spirit.
- While in the old testament humanity receives the law written on tablets of stone, in the New Testament the apostles and humanity now receive the Holy Spirit, the Life-giver and Comforter which was promised to us by the Lord. Thus, this feast is also a celebration of God’s presence with His people, teaching and guiding them into all that is necessary for life with Him according to His will. This is also related to the judgment in the last day since each will be judged by the words and commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 12:47-50) of which the Holy Spirit is always teaching and reminding us (John 14:26). Notice also that the description of God’s presence on Mount Sinai included smoke, fire, lightnings, thunderings, the sound of a trumpet, and quakings (Ex 19:16,18). We see a similar vision in the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.
Understanding the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is God, the third Hypostasis of the Trinity. He is called the Helper or in Greek ‘Paraclete.’ The Helper was present from the beginning, “the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The Holy Spirit is indeed the Helper. He is His Coworker in making Heaven and Earth. He proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son. The Holy Spirit worked in the Old Testament in the patriarchs and prophets to speak the word of God. In the New Testament, He dwells in us through the sacrament of Chrismation. The Holy Spirit works through each believer and through the Church as a whole. For this reason, the Church is a living breathing entity, that is given life through the Holy Spirit and works through the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit strengthens us through sanctification by:
- Sanctifying our mind – St. Paul said, “for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit…But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (I Corinthians 12:8-11).
- Sanctifying our heart – The Helper’s holy dwelling where He uncovers sins, leads us to repentance. He is creating a heart for His dwelling…”to another faith by the same Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:9). “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me as the Holy Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).
- Sanctifying our worship – St. Paul said “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit…and for me that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:18-19).
- Sanctifying our gifts and talents – St. Didymus the Blind said, “There is no way a person can attain any of God’s gracious gifts unless he attains the Holy Spirit Who has all God’s gifts.”
Rites of the Feast
The Feast of Pentecost is sometimes called the Feast of Feasts because it is the celebration of three feasts:
Resurrection, Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit
During the Matins Raising of Incense, it begins with the Litanies of the Sick and the Oblations. After the priest finishes praying “God Have Mercy upon us,” the congregation responds with the major hymn of Amen, [Lord Have Mercy] (3x). Then, they chant the anthem “Ya kol el-sefof,” (All you Heavenly Hosts) which is followed by a procession around the altar three times, the Church’s nave three times, and finally the altar once, while they chant the Procession hymns specifically for the Feast of the Pentecost.
The Reason for commemorating the Resurrection and Ascension during matins has to do with what our Lord said to the disciples, “for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7). Without the Resurrection and the Ascension, we would never have received the Holy Spirit. In same way the Resurrection and Ascension must proceed the descent of the Holy Spirit, we commemorate the Resurrection and Ascension in the service, immediately preceding the Liturgy in which we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit.
As for the Divine Liturgy of the Feast of the Pentecost, it begins with the Agpeya prayer of the third hour only, followed by the Gospel, but without praying the litanies. The litanies of the third hour are prayed during the Liturgy of the Word, right after the reading of the Acts. The tune that the litanies are prayed in is the same tune that is used to pray the litanies of the 6th and 9th hour during Good Friday. The reason for this is to remind us that the suffering of the cross was required in order for us to become temples of the Holy Spirit. We find on the day of Pentecost that the remembrance of Christ’s suffering leads to our comfort, as Christ Himself says, “and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy” (John 16:20). Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can now participate in the suffering of Christ, and through the remembrance of the suffering, we find comfort.
After the Litanies, the Hymn of the Holy Spirit (Pi-epnevma) is prayed, in which we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostle as tongues of fire.
The reason we do the Litanies and the Hymn of the Holy Spirit after the Acts and before the Gospel is to show how the Holy Spirit worked in the apostles to preach the good news of the gospel.
Following the Hymn of the Trisagion and the Litany of the Gospel, the Psalm and Gospel are chanted. The Gospel on the Feast of Pentecost comes from John 15:26-16:15, in which Christ teaches the apostles about how He will send the Holy Spirit to them after the Resurrection and Ascension. He also teaches them about the work of the Holy Spirit in man and how the Holy Spirit will work in the apostles to spread His word.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist is prayed, and since Pentecost is a Feast of the Lord, it is common that the Gregorian Liturgy will be prayed since it the most festive among the three liturgies. During the distribution, Psalm 150 is chanted in a joyful tune, which is followed by the hymn “Let us praise” (Asomen) in which we commemorate Christ’s ascension to the heavens, and sending us the Holy Spirit.
The Feast of the Pentecost teaches us that after we are reunited with Christ, we cannot just sit in bliss and keep Him to ourselves. Just as the apostles were instructed, we too must find our place in evangelism through our God given talents. Christianity is a communal life and it is our duty to share Christ whom you keep in your heart. We have already received the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Confirmation with the Holy Mayroon oil, but here we are receiving strength from the Holy Spirit to carry the name of Christianity to all people through what we say and how we act as Christians. It was the Holy Spirit that spoke through the prophets. It is only by the Holy Spirit that anyone can serve and deliver Christ to others regardless of our own efforts. We pray that God will give us strength through His Holy Spirit in preparation for the Apostles Fast, a period where we focus on serving the world.
Sources and where to go to learn more:
- St John Chrysostom Homily on Pentecost: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/210104.htm