Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Fulfillment of God's Plan, and Our Lives

Dear Parish Faithful,

The Holy Spirit was, is, and ever shall be . . . (Vespers of Pentecost)

Generally speaking, to date the Feast of Pentecost has not entered into the consciousness of contemporary Orthodox Christians in North America. The fact that Pentecost falls on a Sunday saves it from being a "non-event" - the fate of Ascension - but there seems to be no real awareness of its approach or, as we like to say, not much "interest level" in that approach. The eve of the Feast on a parish level, the Saturday evening Great Vespers, is treated as any other Saturday evening - and we know what that means. I wonder how many of the faithful who come to the Liturgy on the morning of Pentecost are surprised to hear that it is already fifty days since Pascha. Or who remain relatively unmoved by the announcement that it is indeed the "last and great day" of Pentecost. Perhaps the clergy and other appointed teachers have failed in their responsibilities to adequately catechize the faithful as to the true greatness of Pentecost, and thus have failed to inspire the same faithful to anticipate the Feast? Perhaps its liturgical expression, far more restrained and "normal" in comparsion to Pascha, has contributed to the eclipse of Pentecost? Perhaps the Feast is yet another victim to the over-all malaise that besets the Church in the post-paschal season? Perhaps, ultimately, we need to seek the cause in a combination of these various factors. However that may be, we remain with the uneasy conclusion that Pentecost comes and goes relatively unanticipated and unnoticed. (Though the Kneeling Prayers following the Liturgy on Pentecost probably get our attention).

What, then, has failed to enter our consciousness concerning Pentecost? We can begin by turning to the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

In the Church's annual liturgical cycle, Pentecost is "the last and great day." It is the celebration by the Church of the coming of the Holy Spirit as the end - the achievement and fulfillment - of the entire history of salvation. For the same reason, however, it is also the celebration of the beginning: it is the "birthday" of the Church as the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, of the new life in Christ, of grace, knowledge, adoption to God and holiness.

With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fulness revealed, all gifts bestowed; it belongs to us now to "appropriate" these gifts, to be that which we have become in Christ: participants and citizens of His Kingdom.

The notion of "fulfillment" is central to an understanding of the greatness of Pentecost. Our salvation depends upon the Resurrection of Christ. And our deification depends upon the descent of the Holy Spirit. Glorious as the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ are, these events would lack a sense of completion - or, again, fulfillment - without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit "upon all flesh," thus actualizing the saving power of those events in our lives. As Veselin Kesich wrote: "With Christ's ascension, "our nature ascended" to heaven, and on Pentecost the Holy Spirit "descended on to our nature"." We would not be able to "know" the risen and glorified Christ without the presence of the Holy Spirit among us. In His extraordinary "farewell discourse" found in the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus prepares His disciples for the coming of the Spirit in the following words:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be with you. (JN. 14:15-17)

These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But 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. 14:25-26)

But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses. (JN. 15:26)

When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (JN. 16:13)

The "Counselor" spoken of here (Gk. Parakletos, also translated as "Comforter") is clearly the Holy Spirit. We will always be dependent upon the Holy Spirit to properly understand what Christ taught us, and that will be a revelation of "truth." The Holy Spirit keeps eveything in the "present," in the now and today of our lives. We do not live off the past events of our salvation, but make those past events a present reality by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the words of Met. Kallistos Ware:

We do not say merely, 'Christ rose,' but 'Christ is risen' - he lives now, for me and in me. This immediacy and personal directness in our relationship with Jesus is precisely the work of the Spirit. (The Orthodox Way, p. 125)

Our salvation, redemption, and eventual deification depend upon the "two hands of God" - the Son and the Holy Spirit. One is never present without the Other, as the Son and Holy Spirit "work" together with the Father in all things, bringing to completion and fruition the eternal design for our life in the Kingdom of God.

Any transformation of human life is testimony to the resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. God constantly creates new things and glorifies himself in his saints, in order to make it known that the Word of God became flesh, experienced death on the Cross, and was raised up that we might receive the Holy Spirit. (The First Day of the New Creation, p. 173)

The Holy Spirit may seem more elusive than the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, but no less indespensible to our life with and in God. It may take some work on our part, but we must struggle if necessary to open up our consciousness, and then our hearts, to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit - the "Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth."

Fr. Steven

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