What happens when Orthodox Christian experience Ascension, but not Pentecost?
by: Fr. Josiah Trenham
The last ten days in the Church have been unusual. In some sense we have been living between two realities. On the leave-taking of Pascha we ceased the sustained celebration of the Holy Resurrection of the Lord as well as our saying, “Christ is risen. Truly He is risen.” The next day we celebrated the Glorious Ascension of our Savior into the heavens to sit at the right hand of the Father. For these days between Ascension and Pentecost we have been in a waiting mode. We, like the Apostles of old, have been heeding our Lord’s ascension instructions to “wait in Jerusalem to be clothed with power from on high” (St. Lk. 24:49). We have been waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.
Why were the Apostles waiting?
The obvious answer to this question is that they were waiting because the Lord Jesus commanded them to tarry until Pentecost. There is, however, much more to this waiting than that. We must understand very clearly the difference between the apostles before Pentecost and after Pentecost. Something dramatic happened to them that changed them personally. They were transformed. Fear turned into martyric boldness; fishermen became the world’s teachers; doubt was replaced by mountain-moving faith. All because of Pentecost.
The Necessity of Pentecost
Some of us do not understand the necessity of Pentecost. Pentecost is many things, and we have spoken about these realities before. Pentecost is revelation of the Holy Trinity to the world. This is why this Feast is also called “Trinity Day” in the Church. The Apostles knew the Father. They had become the disciples of the Son. And now they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is also the birthday of the New Testament Church. It is the democratization of the Spirit of God to all believers. It is the unification of all mankind, and the definitive beginning to the reversal of the chaos of the Tower of Babel. All of these things we have previously discussed, but today I wish to point out that Holy Pentecost is the evidence that Christianity is not a man-made or earthly religion. It is not a set of ethical standards. It is not for moral guidance. Christianity is a miraculous and divine communion between God and man. Christianity is the spiritualization or divination of man.
If Christianity were simply a man-made religion, even if it were the best and most beautiful man-made religion, there would be no need for the disciples to tarry in Jerusalem these days awaiting Pentecost. Why would they need to? They had for years lived in close contact with Christ, and had been His most intimate students. They could have simply begun to write and teach and pass on what they had learned. They had been fully trained, and so it is time to start training. This is how it is with every other of the world’s religions. Not so with Christianity. Christianity is not about ideas, moral guidance, ethical norms, social structures, etc.. Christianity, of course, is not free from these things, but this is not what Holy Orthodoxy is about. Holy Orthodoxy is about the coming of the Holy Spirit into man. It is about human transformation and deification, not ideas. There is no Christianity without Pentecost. Orthodoxy without the Holy Spirit is not Orthodoxy.
Many Christians tragically live between Ascension and Pentecost
With that said is it not tragic how often we live with our Orthodoxy as a set of ideas. We think we are Orthodox because we believe certain things in our heads and were born or converted to a certain family or at a certain time. If the Apostles had remained in the state they were in between Ascension and Pentecost they would never have brought the Gospel to the world. They would never have become the great saints they did. They would never have crushed the demons like they did. They did all of these things because they were living in union with the Holy Spirit of God.
Sometimes we Orthodox evidence little proof that we are living post-Pentecost. Our faith is weak. We are bound by sins. We have little Christian joy. We read or listen to the Acts of the Apostles and think that the Apostles were living a different way of life. We pick up and read a book on the life of a particular saint and the saint’s mode of being appears to us to be foreign and almost unintelligible. Why? Because we are not living in the Holy Spirit. We are more like the fearful and doubting disciples prior to Pentecost. Others around us seem to be radiant. They endure trials with joy. They don’t worry. Why? Because they are in a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. They are sincerely praying the Prayer to the Holy Spirit, “O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art in all places and filleth all things, the Treasury of Good Things and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls O Good One.” The Holy Spirit is in these ones abiding in them, cleanses them, and saving them!
Christianity without Pentecost is Empty Form!
If our Orthodox life is not permeated with the presence of the Holy Spirit it is all in vain! Consider first that the Holy Sacraments or Mysteries of the Church are all dependent completely upon the Holy Spirit. Baptism saves us because we are not born of the water alone, but of water and the Spirit (St. Jn. 3:3-5). Chrismation itself is an individual’s personal Pentecost. The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Ordination is the special bequeathal of the Holy Spirit to men, and the substance of the priesthood is that priests bear the Holy Spirit in the community. This is why our Lord gathered the twelve together and breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever’s sins you remit are remitted. Whoever’s sins you retain are retained” (St. John 20:23). Marriage is simply temporal and earthly if it is not consecrated by the Holy Spirit and bound together in His love. Holy Unction without the Holy Spirit is simply a complex skin treatment! It is the Holy Spirit in the sacred oil healing our souls and bodies! Confession is insincere and pointless unless it is a Spirit-inspired compunction and a Spirit-empowered absolution. And think of the Mystery of Mysteries and the Sacrament of Sacraments: the Holy Eucharist. The existence of the Holy Eucharist is completely dependent upon the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit Whom the priest calls down upon the Holy Table in the epiklesis: “changing them by Thy Holy Spirit.”
This liturgical reality is beautifully evidenced in many different saints’ lives, especially those saints who were bishops or priests responsible for the celebration of the eucharist. The story is told of St. Basil the Great that he had hanging over his altar a beautiful oil lamp made in the form of a golden dove. Always at the time of the transformation of the gifts the dove would begin to swing. A similar story is told about our Holy Father John of San Francisco and Shanghai. St. John would see the Holy Spirit descend as fire into the holy chalice at the epiklesis as he served liturgy. On one occasion the liturgy was delayed because St. John would not go on since he saw no fire. Wondering why he turned to his deacon and saw his face was covered over in a black cloud. Asking the deacon what was wrong the deacon confessed that he had not prepared for the liturgy properly. Once the deacon divested and left the altar the fire came and liturgy could continue.
All of the Holy Mysteries are empty forms without the Holy Spirit, and this may be said about all matters of our faith and practice. Fasting is simply dieting if it is not an attempt to acquire the Holy Spirit. It is not a coincidence that our Lord went into the desert to fast for forty days “led by the Holy Spirit” (St. Lk. 4:1). Sin is not overcome except by the Holy Spirit. He is One Who enables us to “mortify the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13). We could go on and on. There is no prayer without the Holy Spirit praying in us. There is no church without the Holy Spirit. There is no Church Temple without the Holy Spirit. This is why when we erect a true church temple the bishop chrismates the altar and the temple itself. The Temple has its own Pentecost for it truly becomes not simply a functional gathering place, but the House of God and Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lives there. If He does not then the Temple become a Temple of Satan (Rev. 2:9).
Our Goal is to Acquire the Holy Spirit
In the light of truth we see then that St. Seraphim was correct when he was asked by someone, “What is the purpose of this life?”, and he answered, “The acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (St.Lk. 11:11-13). All of our Christian effort and spiritual struggle is guided toward this one thing: obtaining an increase of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to become spiritual. This is the goal of Christianity: the union of man with God by the Holy Spirit. Let us not betray the true nature of our religion by living as though Orthodoxy was about ideas, morals, etc.. Nonsense. Christianity is about becoming one with the True God: by grace becoming what He is. Now some of you may be thinking, “But how do we experience Pentecost? What do I do if I feel stuck between Ascension and Pentecost?” An answer to these questions will be given in next Sunday’s homily.
Now to God the Father, and to the Ascended Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit poured forth today be all glory. Amen.
Fr. Josiah Trenham is the pastor of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, CA.