by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
As this coming Sunday’s Epistle Reading from St Paul’s letter to the Hebrew Christians demonstrates, the Orthodox Christian Church has a long, rich relationship with the Old Testament. Sadly, that fact has faded from the memory of many Orthodox Christians. But think about it for a second. The Old Testament was the only bible that the earliest Christian Church had for almost 300 years. The writings of the earliest Church Fathers quote lavishly from the Old Testament. Also, most of the Orthodox Church’s liturgical prayers quote extensively from the Old Testament. Many don’t realize it’s in the liturgies because it’s rare when book, chapter & verse are actually referenced…but it’s actually chock full of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Scriptures). As our Church Fathers knew, understanding the Old Testament and Jewish thought and practice actually gives us enormous insight into the teachings of Jesus Christ and the rest of the New Testament. For instance, consider the Feast of Pentecost we celebrated last week.
In Acts 2, Saint Luke begins by telling us that Jesus’ disciples had gathered together in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. What we have to recognize, however, Jerusalem was full of Jews who, had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from many surrounding countries, all to celebrate the Jewish Feast of Pentecost. The Christian experience of God pouring down His Holy Spirit at Pentecost hadn’t yet happened…or actually, was just about to. Thus, you see, the roots of Pentecost are far older than Christianity. So, in the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, what did it observe and why was it such a significant feast that so many Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for it?
First, we have to go back to what happened 50 days earlier, the Jewish Passover (Pesach in Hebrew…and Pascha in Greek). Passover is one of the most important Jewish feasts of the year. On it, the Jewish people utilize a beautiful tradition…a meal filled with various symbols to help them keep the memory alive of how, through God’s help, their ancestors escaped the tyranny & slavery of Egypt. God instructed Moses to have them keep this memorial meal each year, re-enacting the events that transpired from the night when death passed over them. Later in the Promised Land, as the Jews settled into a more agricultural way of life, Pentecost also became a harvest feast for the first crop of the season to ripen, barley. In that celebration the best stalks of this “First-Fruits” of the season would be gathered together into a bundle and brought to the temple for a wave offering in front of the altar. There the priest would wave it, from heaven to earth, and from north to south. We Christians look back on this and recognize this as a blessing in the shape of the cross…symbolizing Christ’s Pascha as the “First-Fruits” of those who are resurrected.
The Feast of Pentecost, in Hebrew called Shavuot (sha-voo-OAT), is a festival which occurs fifty days after the Jewish Passover. By New Testament times, Hellenized Jews began calling the Hebrew feasts by their Greek names. Therefore, Pentecosti (πεντηκοστή) is the Greek name for the feast…from the Greek words for “fifty” and “day.”
Fifty days after the Angel of Death Passed over the Israelites in Egypt, they found themselves in the middle of the desert at the base of Mt Sinai, where Moses was given the Law…the Ten Commandments. The Jewish Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) commemorates God’s giving of that Law to Moses with fire and a powerful sound, loud enough to put the Israelites into a state of fearful awe. Jewish Rabbis passed along a story saying that, for each law, fire came down off the mountain into the tent of each head of household, where they were asked if they would accept the law. The ones that didn’t accept it died on the spot. The bible tells us that 3000 men died on that day.
Just as with Passover, years later, as Israel went on to become an agrarian society, Pentecost also became a 2nd harvest feast, for wheat this time, which ripened 50 days after the barley. So, there was a countdown through each of the 50 days. At this harvest-feast of wheat, God instructed the Israelites to bring jar full (omer) of the crushed wheat mixed with olive oil for the priest to also wave in the air in front of the altar in the shape of a cross—from heaven to earth and from north to south. We Christians look back on this harvest and the mixing of olive oil into an offering of the “First Fruits” of wheat 50 days after Passover as a foreshadowing and symbol of those first Christians to whom God poured out His Holy Spirit. There in the Old Testament, there was a giving of the Law to Moses amidst a powerful sound and fire on Mt Sinai. In the new Testament, there was a mighty sound accompanied by tongues of fire and the preaching of God’s Word of Good News in Jerusalem that day in Acts 2. Where 3,000 people were struck dead at the scene of Moses’ giving of the Law…there were 3,000 believers in Jesus as the Messiah baptized in Jerusalem in Acts 2. When the Jewish priest at the harvest celebration of Shavuot did a blessing with the wave offering of wheat and oil in front of the altar in the shape of the cross…we see it as a symbol and foreshadowing of the “First-Fruits” of those first ones who believed in Jesus as the Messiah, and thus who pass over from death to life—resurrected in Him.
The Hebrew Tradition’s celebration of Shavuot (Pentecost) flows seamlessly into the Orthodox Church’s celebration of Pentecost, beautifully prefiguring God’s gift to humankind in the pouring out of His Holy Spirit upon those whose faith is in Jesus as Messiah. At Great Vespers on the night before Pentecost, the book of Numbers is quoted as a background to Acts 2. There, we read from the Prophet Joel, who, through God, tells us that one day, the Holy Spirit would fall upon ordinary people and they too would become prophets (see Joel 2:28-30). Finally, we read from the prophet Ezekiel, who wrote that one day, God would take out the “stony” heart of the people and replace it with a “heart of flesh”—in other words, they would no longer be judgmental but would begin to love God and one another. It all fulfills what Moses prophesied when he longingly cried out in anticipation, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29).
Why did the Holy Spirit appear in the form of tongues like fire? St Gregory Palamas says, “It was to demonstrate that the Spirit shared the same nature as the Word of God, since there’s no relationship closer than that between word and tongue. It was also because of teaching, since teaching Christ’s Gospel needs a tongue full of grace. Beginning from Moses giving of the Law in the Jewish celebration of Pentecost in the Old Testament…it finds its fulfillment through Jesus the Messiah’s First-Fruits of our resurrection and the First-Fruits of His Spirit, lovingly continuing to make the Word incarnate to the world through us.