Friday, June 17, 2016

49 plus 1: Pentecost and the Life Beyond Time

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the Vespers of Pentecost that will be celebrated in all of our parishes on Pentecost Sunday—which falls on June 19 this year—we will implore the Risen Lord, Who sat down at the “right hand” of God the Father, to send the Holy Spirit upon us, as He did upon the apostles who “were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). 

It is quite significant that Pentecost occurred exactly 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ.  In the ancient world, there was a deep symbolic—or even sacred—character to the use of numbers, and this is fully shared and reflected in the Scriptures.  Father Alexander Schmemann explains this “sacred numerology” as it relates to the Feast of Pentecost.  He writes:

“Pentecost in Greek means 50, and in the sacred biblical symbolism of numbers, the number 50 symbolizes both the fullness of time and that which is beyond time: the Kingdom of God itself.  
It symbolizes the fullness of time by its first component—49—which is the fullness of seven (7 x 7): the number of time.  And, it symbolizes that which is beyond time by its second component — 49 + 1 — this "1" being the new day, the “day without evening” of God’s eternal Kingdom.  
With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fullness 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.”

This reality that takes us beyond the fullness of time as experienced in this world we call eschatological—the fullness of the Kingdom of God which is “not of this world” but yet experienced here and now within the grace-filled life of the Church, herself the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  The “appropriation” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, referred to above by Father Alexander, implies the rejection of a way of life that is described as “fleshly.” 

In an extraordinary passage of the Apostle Paul found in his Epistle to the Galatians, we encounter the contrast between the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-24).  Saint Paul emphasizes this contrast at the beginning of this passage: 

“But I say to you, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would.  But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law” (Galatians 5:16-17).

It is essential to realize that the Apostle Paul does not mean by “flesh” what we would call our “bodies” or physical existence.  He is not attacking our bodily, physical existence as such.  That would introduce us to the realm of dualism, an artificial and non-Scriptural conflict between the spiritual and the material.  By “flesh,” the Apostle Paul means the human person in rebellion against God, that results in a self-centered way of life that further results in perversions of both the body and soul. 

As this passage continues, you can clearly discern the comprehensive nature of the “flesh” as encompassing both the mind and body and directing them to sinful activities or attitudes:

“Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like” (Galatians 5:19-21).

My intention is not to be discouraging, but if anything here sounds self-descriptive or reminiscent of one’s most recent confession, then one is still contending with the “works of the flesh.”  According to the Apostle, the long-term prospects for such a way of life are not very promising, if not altogether bleak:  “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).

However, the “good news” is that there exists another way of life, one that is “spiritual” but expressed through our bodily existence in the rhythms of our daily life:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Galatians   5:22-23).  

There is no mention in these “fruits of the Spirit” of miracle-working, visions, ecstatic and/or mystical experiences.  Saint Paul calls upon very human virtues, but with the implication that they are heightened—or deepened—by the Holy Spirit in such a way that a new manner of living is being manifested, one he calls elsewhere a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  This newness of life in the Holy Spirit distinguished the early Christians from their environment, and is meant to distinguish Christians to this day.

Failure to live by the “fruit of the Spirit” is essentially a failure of our Christian vocation.  Saint Paul implies as much when he writes with confidence: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). 

And a final exhortation with behavioral consequences concludes this remarkable passage on the newness of life made possible by the Holy Spirit: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.  Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another” (Galatians 5:25).

As members of the original Pentecostal Church, Orthodox Christians have every opportunity to both “live by the Spirit” and “walk by the Spirit.”

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