Pentecost in the Eastern Rite

by Rev. Romanos V. Russo

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Eastern Christians have always had a special relationship to the Bible. After all, it was they – and their ancestors – who wrote it, under God’s inspiration. No wonder, then, that they have preserved an approach to the Holy Scripture that is uniquely their own. The Christian East especially finds the Old Testament teeming with images that prefigure or foreshadow persons, places and events that will come to fulfillment in the New Testament. This approach is called typology. An excellent example is the story of Pentecost as narrated by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Mystery Foreshadowed

To understand the meaning of Pentecost, one must first turn to the Old Testament. How does it prefigure the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the world? Among the Jewish forebears of Christianity, Pentecost (from the Greek word for ‘fiftieth’) was the feast day that occurred fifty days after Passover, which recalled the deliverance of God’s people by the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb and the crossing of the Red Sea. Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Law by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. At the same time it was a festival of the first fruits. The very first crops that grew were sacrificed to God as a sign of hope in the harvest to come.

In typically Eastern fashion, St. Luke weaves his narrative of the Christian Pentecost with the themes that foreshadow it in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the New Testament, the sacrificial victim is the Spotless Lamb of God, Christ Himself, Who rises from the dead and delivers men from the bondage of sin in the waters of Baptism. Fifty days later, the descent of the Holy Spirit marks the giving of the New Law, the New Covenant sealed by God Himself. Even the first-fruits figure in the narrative of the Acts. The three thousand who were converted by St. Peter’s first sermon are a pledge of the harvest of believers to come.

Other Old Testament types or figures also appear in Luke. The sound of a wind recalls the Spirit blowing over the water at creation in Genesis. The tongues bring to mind God’s creative Word, calling the earth and all its creatures into existence. Fire is also a frequent sign of God’s presence, as it was in the Unburned Bush and the Pillar of Fire. And so fiery tongues appear on Pentecost, signifying that nothing other than God’s own power is being communicated. Even the sermon of the Apostles, understood by the crowd of various nations and races, was prefigured in the Old Testament. The pride of Babel has been reversed by the humility of Christ, Who sends His Spirit as a pledge of eternal life.

The Mystery Revealed and Celebrated

These themes alone would suffice for a rich theology of Pentecost, but the Eastern soul loves to transcend the historical dimensions of reality and scale the heights of mystical communion with God Himself. Christians of the East see Pentecost primarily as the final self-revelation of God to man: the Trinity made known.

Even at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, man beheld the mystery of three Persons in one God:

When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, the worship of the Trinity was revealed. For the Father’s voice bore witness to You, calling You Beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the immutability of His Word.
    — Byzantine Rite

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Tags: Eastern Christianity Prayers/Hymns/Saints Reflections/Inspirational