Homily for the Feast of Pentecost, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, present everywhere, filling all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life, come and abide in us, cleanse us from every stain, and, O Good One, save our souls!

That is a very familiar prayer to the Holy Spirit: normally we use it several times a day, in the liturgy of the Church, and in our private prayers, but we haven’t used it since Holy Saturday—not for fifty days! Instead we have sung the Easter troparion, Christ is risen, or, since the Ascension, simply omitted it. Why? Because in some way, throughout Paschaltime, the fifty days from Pascha to Pentecost, we are waiting for the coming of the Spirit—with the disciples after the Ascension, waiting ‘with great joy’ for the ‘coming upon us of the power of the Holy Spirit’(Luke 24: 52; Acts 1: 8). Not grieving at the departure of Jesus, but looking forward with great joy to the descent of the Holy Spirit with power: this is because the disciples now, at last, have understood that the departure of the physical presence of Jesus means the coming of the Holy Spirit, the ‘other’ Comforter, Advocate, Paraclete, Παράκλητος. The so-called ‘Last Discourses’, which are placed in John’s Gospel between the Mystical Supper and his prayer in the Garden (John 14–16), are all about what Jesus’ death and resurrection means, and also about the coming of this ‘other Comforter’, other than Jesus, that is—‘who will be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him—Jesus goes on—because he abides in you and will be in you’ (John 14: 16–17). This is the only mention of the Comforter as ‘other’, ἄλλον; but this ‘Comforter’, who is other than Christ, is elsewhere called ‘the spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father’ (John 15: 26), and Jesus says of him, ‘I tell you the truth, it is fitting for you that I go away. For unless I go away, the Comforter will not come; if I go away, I shall send him to you’ (John 16: 7).

The ‘other’ Comforter, so much so that, if you think about it, the prayer ‘Heavenly King’, apart from the title ‘Spirit of Truth’, could just as well be a prayer to Christ, often depicted as ‘heavenly King’. Let that sink in: we pray to the Holy Spirit in the very same words with which we might pray to Christ. The ‘other Comforter’ is to be as real for us as Christ was for the Apostles, and indeed is for us. I think that, for most of us, in reality, the Holy Spirit is nothing like as real to us as Christ is. The face of Christ that we perceive in the Gospels, and that looks out at us from the icons: it is a face that speaks to us, with love, pity, compassion, judgment. But the face of the Holy Spirit? When we think of the Holy Spirit, nothing very specific comes to mind. ‘The spirit blows where it wills and we hear its sound, but do not know where it comes from, nor where it is going…’ (John 3: 8). The Greek word for spirit, πνεῦμα, also means ‘wind’: ‘the wind blows as it likes, we hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from, nor where it is going…’—that could be what the Lord’s words to Nikodimos meant. No face, nothing definite—just a mysterious force. But Jesus goes on, speaking to Nikodimos, ‘so is everyone who is born of the Spirit’. If we look through what is said about the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, not just in John’s Gospel, but in the Apostle Paul’s letters, too, we don’t find something, someone, who takes on definite lineaments, but something mysterious, and mysterious because it involves us. We cannot perceive the spirit at a distance, over against us, so that we can stand back and get some sense of who or what he is. So we find the apostle Paul saying, ‘So also the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself pleads on our behalf with groans that cannot be uttered’ (Rom. 8: 26). The Spirit is someone we know within ourselves; not someone who lends a supporting hand, but one who, within ourselves, is a source of strength.

In those Last Discourses to his apostles, Jesus talks of the Holy Spirit as one who is to come; he will not come until Jesus, risen and ascended, sends Him upon us from heaven. And then he will be everything for us, that Jesus was—but as an invisible presence, not one who encounters us in his body, as Jesus did with his disciples. And the passage from the Gospel we read today takes up this theme: ‘On the last day, the great day, of the Feast, Jesus stood up and cried out saying, If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink; the one who believes on me, as Scripture says, rivers of living water will flow from his belly’ (John 7: 37–8). This is the great feast that we encountered on the Mid-feast of Pentecost: the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, in the middle of which Jesus went up to the Temple and taught there, provoking the amazement of those who heard him. Only, whoever devised the Orthodox lectionary that we use has put the account into a different context: the middle of the feast has become for us the Mid-feast of Pentecost, and the ‘last, the great day, of the feast’ is Pentecost itself (actually, I am not sure that his reinterpretation of the ‘Feast’ is not already there in John’s narrative). At the Mid-feast the apolytikion tells us:

At the mid-point of the Feast, O Saviour, water my thirsty soul with streams of true devotion; for you cried out to all: Any who thirst, let them come to me, and let them drink! O Source of life, Christ our God, glory to you!

The apolytikion looks forward to today, citing the words that Jesus is to proclaim in the Temple at Pentecost. Now today we hear the words themselves, which speak of rivers of living water flowing up from within us. And, as we have also just heard, the Evangelist comments: ‘Now this he said about the Spirit’, adding, ‘for the Spirit was not yet, for Jesus had not yet been glorified’ (John 7: 39). Both points remain: the Spirit is coming, and will come, not from outside, but from within ourselves; and we need to wait for his coming—this even after Pentecost, for the Spirit is one who comes, not one we possess. Therefore in the Divine Liturgy, we do not command God to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, into Christ’s presence, rather ‘we ask, pray, and implore you: send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here set forth…’

Those who know your bibles will know that today’s Gospel reading appears to jump a pericope in John’s Gospel, missing out John 7: 43–8: 11, and continuing at 8: 12, with the Lord saying, ‘I am the light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will possess the light of life’. Those who know your bible better will know that the passage skipped, the account of the woman taken in adultery, is not found in the best MSS, and in some MSS it is found at the end of Luke’s Gospel: it seems to be a fugitive or migratory pericope, which doesn’t really belong here.

‘I am the light of the world; the one who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will possess the light of life’: not so much a ‘lamp to my feet and a light to my path’, as the psalm has it (Ps 118: 105), but a light within, a light illuminating our mind and heart, a light helping others to see the way—the presence of the Holy Spirit, as rivers of living water, flowing up from within, showing us the way of Christ. Amen.

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