by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
Counting off to the 50th day after Christ’s resurrection, the Holy Spirit was poured into a frail group of a hundred and twenty disciples who had gathered together in an upper room in Jerusalem that day (Acts 1:15). Both Jewish and Christian mysticism regard the number 50 as something that represents eternal and heavenly fulfillment. So, this Sunday marks the fulfillment of our Lord’s mission to the world when His frail disciples are enabled and given the fervor of faith to powerfully and joyfully proclaim “the mighty works of God” to people from every language (Acts 2:11).
Of course, in wisdom we should be attentive to the fact that this feast of Pentecost isn’t simply the celebration of an ancient event, 2000 years ago. The work of the Holy Spirit wasn’t frozen in time, as something that only happened to those people long, long ago. Rather, this Sunday is the celebration of what continues to happen to us in the Church today. Through our baptism—in the seal of our chrismation, we too have received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. The New Testament tells us that each of us is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that God’s Spirit dwells in us. In other words, there continues to be a personal Pentecost in each of our lives.
So, why should that matter to us?
There’s a nautical illustration that can be used to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all of us who are so spiritually frail. It’s found in the sails of a sailing ship. Now, if you imagine for a moment about all the parts of a sailing ship, its sail is the frailest…the weakest part of it…and yet, when it’s filled with the wind, it can carry a massive ship to its home port. Incidentally, the word “wind” in the bible, is the same word that’s used to describe the Holy Spirit, “ruah,” in Hebrew and “pnevma” in Greek.
· “The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life.” ~ Job 33:4
· “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” ~ John 3:8
· “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” ~ John 20:22
· “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting…and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues…” ~ Acts 2:2-4
That last verse is especially noteworthy when we talk about the frailty of Christians, because when the bible speaks of being “filled with the Holy Spirit,” it’s talking about what God offers His frail faithful. This kind of frail weakness is all we have to offer to God’s Holy Spirit, but when we freely surrender that frailty to God, then He fills it and uses it to strengthen us, stronger than anything else in this created world so that it has the power to move us (and others around us) toward our home port—the Heavenly Kingdom.
The early saints of the Church were as frail as we are, but because they abandoned themselves to God, they lived and died in the power of the Spirit. Can you imagine a life filled with such strength? We need that strength that comes from surrendering our poor, frail, spiritual selves completely over to God, to let Him do with us as He pleases, to use the wind of His breath to take us where He wants us to go.
When we come to celebrate this feast of Pentecost, the Church re-opens the gates of a marvelous spiritual life for us. We’re asked to renew and strengthen ourselves with the gifts of the Holy Spirit which were given to us in our Baptism. It’s a great time to revive in ourselves the prayers that the priest prayed over us at our baptism: “That he (she) may preserve the garment of Baptism, and the earnest of the Spirit undefiled and blameless...” and that, “Preserving the Gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increasing the deposit of Grace, he (she) may attain the prize of his (her) high calling.” Thus, we’re reminded that this gift of the Holy Spirit holds the promise of something astonishing…the prize of our own, personal high calling…something, which, because it’s united with God who is infinite, is something wonderful, far beyond anything we could imagine. It’s the fulfillment of Christ’s promise, “You should know this with certainty, that whoever believes in Me will do the works I have been doing, and even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Nevertheless, those prayers over us at our baptism remind us that this astounding promise of Christ comes with a 2-part responsibility on our part, 1.) to “Preserve the gift of God’s Holy Spirit,” and 2.) “to increase the deposit of God’s Grace.”
So, how do we preserve the gift of God’s Holy Spirit and increase the deposit of God’s grace? This brings us back to the illustration of the sails on our great sailing ship. The temptation here is to think that we have to work harder to preserve the gift of the Holy Spirit and to increase the deposit of God’s grace. Of course, let’s make no mistake…there are works that our Lord and His Church and the scriptures call us to do, and as James suggests in his epistle, anyone who claims to believe in Christ, but whose works don’t reflect that alleged belief (James 2:14-26) is no different than a walking corpse. Either our faith grows and affects our actions…or it’s deceased. So, it’s vitally important that our faith has the consequence of good works in our life. But the underlying truth about preserving the gift of God’s Spirit and increasing the deposit of God’s Grace, is that it’s more about becoming different than working harder. It’s impossible to have a spiritual life without God’s grace. The grace of the Holy Spirit continually offers us the mysterious power of rebirth and transforms the whole of our life toward God. God’s grace is constantly being poured into us. But it will do us no good if we keep ourselves and our lives closed off to it…if those sails are kept rolled up, captivated with focusing on our own wills. Instead, we have to increasingly open ourselves up, to allow God’s Grace to fill us and to take us where He wills. Saint Silouan the Athonite said, “The Lord has given the Holy Spirit upon the earth, and in whomsoever He dwells, that one feels paradise within himself. You might say: why hasn't this happened to me? Because you have not given yourself over to the will of God, but you live according to yourself. Look at the one who loves his own will. He never has peace in himself and is always displeased with something. But whoever has given himself over to God's will perfectly has pure prayer. His soul loves the Lord, and everything is acceptable and good to him.”
Thus, the Holy Spirit gives joy…the joy of entering even now, into paradise…the joy of being joined to Christ in the communion of His One Body…the joy of giving our lives for Him…the joy of participating with Him in drawing the world into His net. If you were asked to describe your Orthodox Christian faith, could you really say that it’s the source of great joy in your life? Does it give you great joy to come on time for the beginning of the Divine Liturgy? Do you wonder why this hasn’t yet happened to you? Then, this Pentecost, it’s time to unfurl your sails and open your life up, freely surrendering it to being filled with the joyfully moving force of God’s Holy Spirit.