From Pascha to Pentecost

by Mary Lanser

Hear my cry O God, listen to my prayer from the ends of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to a rock that is higher than I for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” (Psalm 60:1-3)

“Lead me to a rock that is higher than I”—What an odd little petition. To paraphrase: Get me out of here, O Lord! Lead me to a cave in the mountains so that I may stand on the ledge and listen for Your voice. Set me on a rock in the middle of a rushing river swollen by floodwaters tumbling fast and dangerous, or on a startling desert-stone formation to take my feet up away from burning sands. What are we to make of this?

Sometimes the images that we conjure when we call upon God to rescue us in a hurry are amusing. We are like a child with its arms raised begging to be picked up so to see what’s going on in a moment of confusion, or to be rescued from some overwhelming contact with the world at ground level, or simply to seek a restful moment on a strong shoulder. Sometimes we only need a moment to catch our breath. Other times we long for and seek something more enduring.

Luke opens the Book of Acts telling us about the post-Resurrection Christ on earth: “To them (the Apostles) He presented himself living, after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking of the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3) The language of the Christ presenting Himself “living” to the Apostles after his Resurrection indicates that after His Passion our Lord was exercising the agency of His divinity here on earth, making manifest the Incarnation in a way that the world had never experienced before. This was indeed the same Christ who was presented to us by his holy virgin mother at his Nativity, and the same Christ presented to us in his robe of royal purple and crown of thorns by Pontius Pilate as he said to the crowd: “Behold the man!”

The Risen Christ was and remains the Son of the Living God, second person of the Holy Trinity, but there had been profound changes at the time of His Resurrection. Here in the time between the Resurrect-ion and Pentecost the Apostles met Jesus the Christ who had been raised in power and in glory and whose body was no longer subject in any way to the corrupt-ion, weakness, and mortality of fallen human nature. He was truly and fully the New Adam, and in this glorified and corporeal emblem of eternal life, He demonstrated to the Apostles, and to all of us, what we can also anticipate if we are, as the Son was, willing to accept gracefully the death that is granted to us by the Father, so that we may have life eternal.

Jesus not only speaks of the Kingdom, but He, “living,” presents it to us voluntarily and bodily. There is no separating the Kingdom from God, for they are one as the soul and body are one and we are made in the flesh to be seerers and partakers of the Kingdom which He presents to us in the flesh. During the time between the Resurrection and Pentecost, the time for His teaching us has passed, and has been replaced by the time for showing us how to be and become one with the Kingdom in body, mind and spirit. As the great apostle Paul says:

“Therefore my brethren you also have become dead to the law through the Body of Christ, that you may be married to another–to Him who was raised from the dead that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the code of the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what held us captive, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”  (Romans 7:4-6)

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While we wait for the day of the Holy Spirit, we encounter a number of important liturgical moments.

Icon for Thomas Sunday (courtesy oca.org)

The first is the Sunday of Thomas where we are reminded again of Christ’s passion and death. Looking back now we realize that the Christ of our salvation is known to be true by the stripes and wounds of his passion and crucifixion. Christ Transfigured is truly Christ Crucified and Resurrected. The Risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit into the Apostles on Thomas Sunday. This is a foretelling of what is to come and why it is necessary. Pentecost comes to present, to us individually and intimately, the living power and promise of the Cross.

The next is the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women. Though we read from the Gospel of Mark on that day, it is in the Gospel of John (chapter 20), where we read that “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Why are you weeping?”

Icon for the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women (courtesy oca.org)

This is a striking image and message for it harkens back to the Mosaic covenant of which the Risen Christ is the fulfillment. In Exodus 25, we read: “And you shall put the mercy seat atop the ark and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the covenant, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.” And Christ presented himself, living, to the Apostles and spoke to them of the Kingdom of God.

The next three Sundays take us back to key moments in the life of Jesus, for us and for the season. The first Sunday in this grouping gives us the story of the miraculous healing of the paralytic, the next is the story of the Samaritan woman and the third is the Sunday of the story of the man born blind. The one element that draws all of these stories together into a resurrectional theme is water. The Sheep’s Pool for the Sunday of the Paralytic. Jacob’s Well for the Sunday of the Samaritan Women, and the Pool of Siloam for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind. As we wait for Pentecost these three Sundays remind us that through the Power of the Holy Spirit we all partake of the living water that comes down from heaven.

Icon for the Sunday of the Paralytic (courtesy oca.org)

The Sunday of the Paralytic signals Jesus’ resurrectional power over the body, over flesh. for the paralytic had been ill for decades and in all that time there was no one to help him in his disreputable state. Even such deep-seated and resolute weakness can be restored in faith. This story also draws our attention back to the mercy seat by making clear the relationship between sin and physical illness. Jesus says to the man, “See, you are well! Sin no more , that nothing worse befall you.” (John 5:14)

The story also demonstrates that some of us will be healed indirectly by the powers of heaven, and others will receive direct healing by the power of the risen Christ. Therefore we see that some are healed by the angel disturbing the water in the pool and others are healed by Christ directly so that when the power of the Holy Spirit comes into the world at Pentecost, we are strengthened in knowledge and in power to be one body in Christ. to love and heal one another in Christ, Jesus and know that his healing power is still active in this world.

Icon for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman (courtesy oca.org)

Now before we advance to the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman there is another crucial moment in our waiting for Pentecost. As there is a Sunday of mid-Lent, with its focus on the Cross, there is also a mid-Pentecost, falling on Wednesday, which has as its focus the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as we experience the pouring out of the Living Water that is Christ, Jesus. The reading for that day comes again from the Gospel of John (7:10-24) and tells of Jesus when he went into the Temple to teach in the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles.

The Feast of Tabernacles is significant because it celebrates the forty years that Moses and the Hebrew people spent in the desert. The Feast of Booths/Tabernacles is directly associated with the Passover and Hebrew Pentecost which is the Feast of the Law and is celebrated, traditionally, fifty days after Passover and marks the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. There is also a direct reference in the reading to the fact that the Temple priests seek to kill Jesus for healing the paralytic on the Sabbath. Jesus reminds them that circumcision is a part of Mosaic law, and circumcisions are performed on the Sabbath. He asks then why it is that the law would allow the act of circumcision on the Sabbath, and yet punish an act of healing for the whole body on that same day. And so we are once again reminded of the suffering and sacrifice of the Cross to heal and restore the consequences of the disobedience and ingratitude of mankind. In addition to the reference to the Law in this feast, there is yet another liturgical connection made between the Sunday of the Paralytic and the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman by associating the water from the rock struck by Moses that is celebrated during the Feast of Tabernacles, and the living water that comes down from heaven and it is reflected in the Tropar and Kontak of the feast:

Having come to the middle of the Feast, refresh my thirsty soul with streams of piety; for Thou, O Saviour, didst cry to all: Let him who thirsts come to Me and drink. O Christ our God, Source of Life, glory to Thee.  — Troparion, Tone 8

When the Feast of the law was half over, O Lord and Creator of all, Thou didst say to the bystanders, O Christ our God: Come and draw the water of immortality. Therefore we fall down before Thee and cry with faith: Grant us Thy bounties, for Thou art the Source of our Life.  — Kontakion, Tone 4

The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman is noteworthy for a number of reasons. For example, Jesus was passing through Samaria on his way to Galilee, actually to avoid a confrontation with the Pharisees in Judea who were noticing that Jesus seemed to have more followers than John the Baptist. When we arrive at Jacob’s Well—tying the new covenant back to the old—Jesus asks a Samaritan woman to give him something to drink. This is not the only place where Jesus indicates that He wants us to offer Him small, mundane kindnesses as a gesture of our regard for Him and our love. Sometimes He requests material things and sometimes he asks that we give something of our internal or spiritual selves, even if it is only refraining from some small habit of sin. He asks this of us so that we may increase the room in our hearts for Him.

Then we have a most obvious reminder that Moses brought forth water from a rock, and it quenched a temporary thirst, but Jesus comes to offer us the Water of Life because so we will never thirst again. The water that He offers becomes a wellspring within us, which we can share with others, as long as we give to Him those bits of ourselves that make room in our hearts for Him. Pentecost brings with it the Power of the Holy Spirit that gives us the strength, the means, and the place—the Church—to be filled with the water coming down from heaven.

Icon for the Sunday of the Blind Man (courtesy oca.org)

The following Sunday is the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, and here we add Light to the thematic theological symbol of Water. We are brought face to face, once more, with the Risen Light of the World, fully alive, still teaching, and illuminating the Apostles concerning the Kingdom of Heaven. A kontakion from the canon, enforces this fact:  “With eyes that are spiritually blind I come to you, O Christ and like the man who was blind since birth, I cry out to you with repentance: You are a shining Light to those who are in darkness.” This vivid association between water and light cannot help but to remind us of the power of our Baptism in water and the Spirit.

Again during Matins of that Sunday we hear: “You gave sight to the blind man who met you O Christ and you ordered him to wash in the pool of Siloam that he might see and announce your divinity which has appeared in the flesh for the salvation of all.”

And this brings us to reflect on yet another common element found in each of the three Sundays: the Paralytic, the Samaritan Woman, and the Man Born Blind. These three stories each bear the element of witness to the divinity of Jesus:

“Behold the anointed Messiah has appeared on earth. The Samaritan woman proclaimed to the town: It was written in the Law of old that a great prophet would come both God and man. He knew all my deeds. He uncovered everything hidden in the depths of my heart. The whole town ran and saw the truth of her words. They marvelled confirmed in faith by the sight.”  — Wednesday Vespers of the Week of the Samaritan Woman

“Jesus went up to Jerusalem to the Sheep Pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda…The Lord saw there a man with a chronic illness and He asked Him: Do you want to be healed?…I have spent my money on physicians and received no help from any one. The Physician of soul and body said to him: Take up your pallet and walk; proclaim to the whole world the greatness of my mercy and my might deeds.” — Monday Matins of the Week of the Paralytic

On these three Sundays of great miracles, we are to witness the divinity of Jesus to the world and the promise of Christ to send the Holy Spirit is to give to us, through the Church, the power to be and become disciples who will not hesitate to speak out in the assembly and give testimony to the glory of the Lord of Hosts.

Icon for Ascension (courtesy oca.org)

And finally we reach the penultimate feast, that of the Ascension and now we can return to Psalm 60 and the rock that is higher than I, as we take leave, liturgically, of the Paschal feast, and Jesus returns to the Father to be seated at the right hand. The Feast is full of references to mountain-tops.

“God who appeared on Mount Sinai and gave the Law to Moses the prophet is now raised up bodily from the Mount of Olives. Let us praise Him all together, for he is clothed in glory.” and then “O Christ, You raised up human nature which had been subjected to the corruption of the grave, and you exalted it by your Ascension into heaven where you glorify us with You.” — Matins of Ascension

So that the Rock that is higher than I is, in fact, Jesus, Lord, Redeemer, King.

It is also on the Feast of the Ascension during Matins that our attention is turned fully to what is to come: “O graciousness which surpasses understanding! O mystery which invokes wonder! The Master of the universe goes from earth to heaven and sends the Holy Spirit to his disciples to illumine their hearts and enkindle them with his grace. The Lord said to his disciples: Remain in Jerusalem and I will send you a Paraclete who is seated with the Father and with Me…”

Icon for the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council (oca.org)

Finally, the Sunday after the Ascension is called the Sunday of the Holy Fathers and commemorates the bishops who sat at the Council of Nicea. It is not the sanctity of individual bishops that is the focus of this feast but rather the fact that these bishops gave testament to the divinity of Christ. In this way the Sunday of The Holy Fathers carries forward the message of witnessing from the Sundays of the miracles and draws attention to the intimate relationships between and among Christ, ourselves, the Holy Spirit and the Church.

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The focus of the Feast’s readings from Acts is on Paul’s pastoral care of the flock and of the importance of teaching right doctrine and the importance of the Holy Spirit in securing the testimony of the Life of Christ and our lives in Christ: “…now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there…For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God, therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to shepherd the church of God which He purchased by His own blood.” (Acts 20:22-28)

In this way, we are prepared to address the various themes presented to us at Pentecost. We begin to see the need for the illumination of the Holy Spirit so that we have the power to be and become what Christ has asked of us here, to be witnesses to the Truth, and to go and make disciples. We begin to see that for us to do these things the Holy Orthodox Faith and Orthodox Church has been bequeathed to us as the sure path to salvation for ourselves and for all whose lives we manage to reach out and touch. We come to realize that as the Body of Christ, the Church here on earth is indeed the Rock that is higher than I.

Blessed journey into the Feast!

Editor’s Note: Mary Lanser is the leader of Holy Trinity’s Women’s Ministry. You can reach her at women@holytrinity-oca.org.