The Gift of Pentecost & Prophecy
Fr. Basil Zebrun
Pentecost -- the Birthday of the Church -- is the celebration of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the disciples fifty days after our Lord's Resurrection. Pentecost is the culmination of Christ's earthly ministry. The giving of the Spirit places a seal on God's specific plan of salvation: one that began long before the birth of Jesus, with the call of Abraham and the formation of the people of Israel, out of whom came the Christ.
As part of the Church's celebration of the feast, a passage from the Book of Numbers is chanted at evening Vespers (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29). In this reading the Lord tells Moses to gather seventy elders, and that He will place His Spirit upon them. Afterwards they began to prophesy. Two others however, Eldad and Medad, who were not part of the seventy, received the Spirit as well, and they began to prophesy. A young man promptly ran to tell Moses of the occurrence, and Joshua asked Moses to forbid the two men from prophesying. Moses answered, "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them."
This is Pentecost! This wish of Moses points prophetically to the day when the Spirit would indeed be poured out upon all the disciples. As a result of this event -- Pentecost -- we Christians are, in fact, anointed to be not only kings and priests of creation, but also, as Moses desired, anointed to be prophets. The Spirit is given on Pentecost, and in the Sacrament of Chrismation which is our personal Pentecost, so that we can be wise and bring God's Word to bear on every circumstance in life. Our words, like God's Word, have the potential for being constructive, edifying, uplifting, life-giving, even challenging at times with the Truth of the Gospel.
In this sense we are prophets. The calling escapes many Christians as a result of frequently equating prophecy exclusively with foretelling the future. In his remarkable book, "Of Water and the Spirit," Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains that prophecy is, "the power given to man always to discern the will of God, to hear His voice and to be -- in creation, in the world -- the witness and the agent of Divine Wisdom. The prophet is the one who hears God and therefore can convey God's will to the world, the one who "reads" all events, all "situations" with God's eyes and therefore can refer all that is human and temporal to that which is divine and eternal; the one, in other words, for whom the world is transparent to God. And such is the true vocation of man, his true nature" (p. 100).
We will note that Fr. Alexander reminds us that to be a prophet -- as well as king and priest -- is man's original destiny. Man is meant to convey divine wisdom, and he is also created to rule the world in accordance with God's will, and to offer the world back to the Creator in thanksgiving. This vocation is restored only in Christ and the Spirit, because we confess Christ as being pre-eminently, the Priest, the King, and the Prophet. Our calling is directly linked to Him -- empowered by Him -- as He is made present in our midst through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Orthodox Christians also hear from the Prophecy of Joel, on the eve of Pentecost (Joel 2:23-32). The Prophet states, "And it shall come to pass (says the Lord), that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophecy; your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions: even upon the menservants and maidservants, in those days, I will pour out My Spirit."
In these words is found absolutely no discrimination by the Lord with respect to the divine gift. Regardless of age, gender, class, or race, all benefit from the generosity of God. This sentiment reminds us of St. Paul's words in both Galatians and Colossians, that in Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11). The gift of Christ, the gift of Pentecost, is that of unity: prophets, kings and priests sharing a common understanding of life. "Father...that they may be one as we are" (John 17: 11,21--22). For Christians the barriers of this world which seem often to divide men, are overcome through faith. Even the "obstacle" of religion is overcome by the possibility given for all people to be united in one faith, as it is God's desire that, "all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus in Acts, the result of the Spirit's coming is that men of all nations hear the marvelous works of God -- the same message -- proclaimed in their own languages (Acts 2:8-11). The Kontakion for the feast expresses the gift of unity as being, in fact, a reversal of God's action at the Tower of Babel:
"When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the all Holy Spirit" (Kontakion for the feast).
Unity, however, in Christ and the Spirit, does not negate differences among people, proper to humanity. It is significant that on the Day of Pentecost the Spirit rested upon each disciple personally, separately. The tongues of fire were "cloven," divided, because the gift of the Spirit is unique for each person. There is one Spirit, but diverse gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4). The Church works internally upon the principle of "unity in diversity." The same principle, historically, has guided its mission to, "go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Thus, Orthodoxy has never insisted upon absolute uniformity in language or liturgical practice in its efforts to evangelize. The Church as always sought to "baptize" the culture in which it finds itself, to save and embrace that which is redeemable. In America, or in any nation, the Church's objective is not to transform local citizens -- through specific customs -- into practicing Russians, Greeks, Serbians, or Romanians, so that they can then receive the Good News of Christ. In the Spirit of Pentecost, the Church's work includes endorsing the unique character of indigenous people, whenever and wherever possible, and discerning the work of the Spirit as it has preceded the arrival of missionaries, so that specific expressions of God's Truth, already present, might even be adopted as unique, local expressions of Orthodox Christianity.
"whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue, if there is anything praiseworthy..." (Philippians 4:8).
The Prophecy of Ezekiel is also heard on the eve of Pentecost, by Orthodox Christians (Ezekiel 36:24-28): "The Lord said, from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new Spirit I will put within you...I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes..." Here, the work of the Spirit is revealed as concerned with Truth, with saving man from those things that frequently take the place of God in life: "from all your idols I will cleanse you...and cause you to walk in My statutes."
In light of the above words -- specifically the three prophecies -- we are reminded of the wisdom that has been given with the coming of the Spirit, the ability to see God as the source and meaning of life, and to respond accordingly. We are also called to consider the gift of speech and prophetic utterance (if you will) that is ours in Christ and the Spirit. In light of that gift, we can ask, are we cautious with our words, careful not to judge or criticize, but rather do we strive so that what we say will be constructive and edifying to our neighbor, even challenging with the love and truth of the Gospel? In the aftermath of the Spirit's coming, St. Peter helped to convert three thousand souls with a single sermon (Acts 2:37-41). Let us, however, focus on using our gift, in the beginning, to convert ourselves, and then to share the life in Christ, life in the Spirit, with those whom God places before us.