On the church calendar, we are still in Pentecost, that 50-day period between Easter/Pascha and Pentecost. We even take note of Mid-Pentecost, which was last week.
Of course, it’s never inappropriate to remind one another that “Christ is risen!” but during these weeks we make a special point of it and try to remember, instead of “Hello!” to greet one another with those words of joy and hope. For truly His resurrection from the dead, His overcoming of death, shows the power of God to deliver us from our own patches of darkness, no matter how impossibly deep and cold the current “grave” we find ourselves in.
Last night a robin came around to chirp the falling of dusk to me, “my” robin who always seems to be sent as an emissary from the Father – or more precisely, a herald: Gretchen, remember, God is here with you! I forgot to tell you that in my hotel in Atlanta earlier this month, the night when I was staying alone, a robin chirped right outside my ground-floor window just before darkness and a rainstorm.
This morning I woke to birdsong floating in from the garden and the trees. As I made my bed I joined in with them and sang a meditative version of the hymn, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life.”
Next week will be the Leave-taking of Pascha, after which we will focus on the Ascension of Christ. At Vespers the evening before, we will sing all those rousing Paschal choruses for the last time liturgically. I know the little sorrows and worries, confusing thoughts and maybe even some big heartaches won’t disappear from my earthly life, and I will want to keep singing these re-orienting melodies of Christ’s transforming Life.
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.
We have come to the Great Feast of Pentecost, and at the Vigil tonight we reverently resumed singing “O Heavenly King,” having withheld that prayer since Pascha, while we were “waiting” liturgically for the Holy Spirit to be poured out. All the vestments are green now, and the church is decorated with extra redwood branches, trees and flowers to remind us of our life in Christ, and to express our joy at the feast.
While we sang the long Psalm with its refrain, “His mercy endureth forever,” four chandeliers with a dozen candles each were set to swinging back and forth just above us, and when we looked beyond them, we could see the icon of the Savior, looking down with love and compassion.
One of the scripture readings tonight was from the Prophet Ezekiel, chapeter 36, and it explains some of the reasons why we are full of thanks and gladness:
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.