In the Orthodox Church, when we celebrate a feast commemorating an event in our salvation history, such as Pentecost, also known as Holy Trinity Sunday, it is followed directly by another feast honoring a person who figures heavily in the previous day’s event. In the present case, tomorrow is Holy Spirit Day. It seems a good time to post these thoughts from Metropolitan Anthony:
When we say that God is spirit, we say simply that he is not matter as we know it, that he is something quite different. In that sense it is a negative description that belongs already without the word, to that form of theology which is negative theology, apophatic theology, a theology of paradoxes, a theology that uses words to point toward the ineffable — that which can neither be described nor put into words and yet which must be indicated somehow in speech.
One could avoid speech. In Siberia there were pagan tribes that had deliberately rejected every human word for God. And when in conversation they wanted to indicate God they raised their hand towards heaven. This is possible in a civilization of direct communication by speech. It is no longer possible in a civilization of books. But whatever words we use we have got to be aware of the fact that we are not describing, we are not defining what God is, because the very thing we know about God is that he is beyond defining, beyond describing. So that when we say of God that he is a Spirit, when we speak of the Holy Spirit in particular, we do not mean to give a concrete definition or any description of what he is. We point towards the fact that he is beyond our conceptual knowledge, beyond every formulation, that is is what we don’t know, and this is what we mean to say by saying that he is a spirit as contrasted with us.
–Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, excerpt from “Our Life in God,” from Essential Writings
The Monday after Pentecost Sunday, we Orthodox celebrate Holy Spirit Day.
When He came down and confused the tongues,
the Most High divided the nations;
but when He distributed the tongues of fire,
He called all people to unity.
Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the most-Holy Spirit.
(Hymn of the Feast)
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore He says:
“Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead, And Christ will give you light.”
During the Kneeling Vespers this afternoon I did not kneel, because I was sitting on a bench along the wall of the nave, with my little goddaughter Mary on my lap, and she had just fallen asleep. When a child falls asleep on my chest I am always astounded, and consider it the greatest honor, as though she were speaking right to my heart, “I feel safe and at peace with you, so I will give my warm body with its quiet breathing into your care.”
Today is Pentecost, or Holy Trinity Sunday, because not only do we remember that the Holy Spirit was given to us, and fell on the disciples 50 days after Christ’s Resurrection, but He was sent from the Father, by the Son, confirming the unity and will of the Holy Trinity, God in Three Persons.
The photo of the framed icon above is reflecting the Pantocrator fresco in the dome above. If I squint hard enough I can see the face of Christ superimposed on the icon that depicts the Holy Spirit falling on the apostles.
The Holy Spirit is also remembered tomorrow, the day after this feast, on Holy Spirit Day. And today we had the Kneeling Vespers to prepare for that Liturgy; it’s the first time we have kneeled since Pascha, and the only time all year that we pray these particular prayers. I had brought a very little kneeling pad, cut from an old blue backpacking pad – our priest suggested we bring something like this – but as I didn’t need it, I offered it to a woman nearby and she was happy.
Because I had both arms around a dear baby, I wasn’t able to take a picture of her serene face, or to take out my notebook and write notes about the content of the seven long and poetical prayers, in three sets, or the hymns of that service….one normally wouldn’t want to do that anyway, but I felt that I missed so much that I would like to ruminate on further. We won’t hear these again until next year. I did look here just now and read a little about them:
Each set ends, sealed as it were with a lovely capstone, with one of the ancient vesperal prayers for light, from the Great Church of Holy Wisdom, in Constantinople. That much makes sense: praying for light as we re-enter the world from the heady days of Pascha-Pentecost, and enter “ordinary time” in our cycle of the church year. We need the light of Christ in the dark paths of this world, as our Gospel for the Feast proclaimed.
It was a day full of sunlight, and perhaps that added to the calm joy I was feeling, along with a certain amazement at the huge blessing of being in the Orthodox Church. This recent heightening of my awareness began last Sunday, when we remembered The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council who in the 4th century labored body, soul, and spirit on behalf of the Body of Christ, to hold us fast to the Apostles’ teaching.
After the homily that day, I exchanged silent but knowing looks and hand-squeezes with a couple of people near me — we were all glad to be in this together, responding to the comforting words of our priest about how we don’t have to make up our faith as we go. If we also hold fast to the truth that has been given to us, we can give our energies not to intellectual debates, but to fulfilling the commandments of Christ.
Today’s feast is a celebration of the reality of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, helping us to do just that, giving us Christ and His love to share among ourselves and with everyone in our lives. Really, God’s plan of salvation is impossible to fully comprehend…. One important point was brought home to us in today’s homily: Our purpose is to acquire the Holy Spirit.
A few months ago a lecturer asked a group of us, “What are the most fundamental doctrines of the Church?” How would you have answered? The answer was that the first doctrine is The Holy Trinity. So this feast is most important!
Lots of women and children were wearing green skirts or scarves. Some parishioners brought extra armfuls of birch branches into the church this morning, to hand out freely, or to prop up in corners here and there. I brought home a big blooming branch and stood it near my icon of The Holy Trinity.
In the Church, I live in a place where all the nourishment and medicine and support I need are available in the sacraments, and in the love and care of her saints poured into her over thousands of years now. They love and pray for us still.
Mary woke up just after Vespers was over. Her eyes opened and looked at my eyes, and then she sprang to life and was ready to go forth in her calling to grow in knowledge and grace, into the likeness of Christ. I want to rest in my Father’s arms in that childlike way, and be about my work in the strength that comes from His rest.
O Heavenly King, the Comforter,
The Spirit of Truth,
Who art everywhere present
and filleth all things;
Treasury of Blessings
and Giver of Life,
come and abide in us,
and cleanse us from every impurity,
and save our souls, O Good One.