Icon, Part 13: Pentecost


“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” (Acts 2: 1-13, NASB)

Ten days after Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, the Holy Spirit descended on the Disciples, and they began to “speak in tongues”. From this point forward they are no longer the Disciples, but the Apostles. This is the beginning of the Christian Church.

Each of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church is important, and each marks something else for us to learn about Christ, but there is something qualitatively different about Pentecost. Christ’s death and resurrection were world-changing, but it was from the event of Pentecost that the Apostles, one might say, “found their voice” through the Holy Spirit, and took the message of the Resurrection out into the world. For the three or so years of Jesus’s earthly ministry, His message and His Disciples stayed largely within Judea and Samaria (though holy tradition does speak of journeys and correspondence further afield), but after Pentecost the faith and message of Jesus spread rapidly throughout the entire Roman Empire (which it would fundamentally change over the next 300 years), the Persian Empire, beyond there into India, southwards into Ethiopia, and to points further beyond.

Why is this day called Pentecost? Remember that the first Christians were also Jews, and the descent of the Holy Spirit occurred during the Jewish Festival of Weeks (Shavout), which is celebrated fifty days after Passover, and thus itself also often called Pentecost (“Pente” means 50, and “cost” or “caust” meaning offering or feast).

Liturgically, the Ascension of ten days prior marked the end of the Paschal season, and Pentecost marks the beginning of a new season of the Orthodox Church. The vestments change from the white of Pascha to green, and will remain as such until the beginning of the Dormition Fast in August. Until the beginning of Great Lent, the Liturgicon of the church (the calendar that dictates the readings) is henceforth marked by the number of weeks since Pentecost. The ten days between Ascension and Pentecost are not left unmarked, however. During this time, since Ascension always falls on a Thursday, there is an intervening Sunday, and this commemorates the First Ecumenical Council – the first Great Council of the church since one mentioned in Acts, called by the emperor Constantine at Nicea, and at which the first two-thirds of the Nicene Creed were written. The Saturday of the Eve of Pentecost is Soul Saturday, during which we especially pray for our beloved departed (there was a similar commemoration on the eave of Meatfare Sunday too).

The Feast

“Today all the nations in the city of David beheld wonders, when the Holy Spirit descended in fiery tongues, as the God-inspired Luke spake; for he said: The Disciples of Christ being gathered together, there was a sound as of a mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And they began to speak strange doctrines and strange teachings with diverse tongues, to the Holy Trinity.” (Great Vespers on the Sunday Evening of Pentecost, www.antiochian.org)

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirt of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the father has are Mine.” John 16: 12-15a. New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Publishing, 1982.

On this day, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, descends on the Apostles in Jerusalem, and from this day they begin not only to preach, but to perform miracles in Jesus’s name. Their preaching in tongues is said to be the lifting of the curse laid down at the Tower of Babel.

“When the High One descended, confusing tongues, He divided the nations. And when He distributed the fiery tongues He called all to one unity. Wherefore, in unison we glorify the most Holy Spirit.” (Orthros Kontakion, www.antiochian.org)

The coming of the Holy Spirit fulfilled the promise Jesus made in John 16, and who animates and speaks through the Church from this day forward.

“The Holy Spirit hath ever been, is and ever shall be; for He is wholly without beginning and without end. Yet He is in covenant with the Father and the Son, counted as Life and Life- giver, Light and Light-giver, good by nature and a Fountain of goodness, through whom the Father is known and the Son glorified. And by all it is understood that one power, one rank, one worship are of the Holy Trinity.” (Great Vespers of Pentecost, www.antiochian.org)

It is important to remember that the Holy Spirit is one of three persons of the Triune God, though this is a great Mystery as we cannot describe or understand this fully. There have been, and indeed still are many Christian denominations who reduce the Holy Spirit to something else less than one of the persons of the Trinity, and do so in an effort to understand or explain what is beyond human reckoning. Yet this in turn distorts understanding both God the Father and Jesus Christ in the process. Pentecost is a revelation to us of the truth.

The Icon

Of all of the festal icons of the Orthodox Church, the icon for Pentecost is one of the most difficult to understand, for it contains many different elements all at once. We see a crowned old man at the bottom of the frame, standing in a doorway, holding a cloak or cloth between his hands, and 12 flaming scrolls standing upright in the cloth. Above him we see a window, and both the window and doorway appear to be set into a wall. Yes surrounding the man and the window we see twelve figures seated at a different perspective, with the two figures in the back (at the top of the frame) at the same size, or maybe larger than those in the foreground. The figures are all holding scrolls or books, they may have flames above their heads, and above them all is the lower edge of nimbus of dark light, with 12 rays. What is going on here?

As with many other icons, the icon of Pentecost is not a literal depiction of events – it is not a historical document, but instead presents Pentecost as an even captured in eternity, in which we are all present. The entire church, all believers from all ages that have passed or are yet to come, is there in this moment.

The twelve seated figures are the 12 Apostles seated in the Upper Room, experiencing the descent of the Holy Spirit represented by the nimbus above. Those holding books instead of scrolls are gospel or epistle writers. But even this should strike the viewer as a bit odd: several of the Apostles present on the icon were not actually in the room. At the top of the ring, facing each other, are Peter and Paul. Paul at this time was still a Pharisee, and persecuting the early Christians. Yet because Paul was so important to the early spread of the faith, being a prolific preacher, church planter, and writer, and is ranked alongside Peter, we see Paul placed alongside Peter, while Matthias, who was elected by the other Apostles to replace Judas, is absent. Further, Luke certainly was not there either, yet he too is present among the twelve figures, again emphasizing the eternity of Pentecost.

The 12 figures present are all depicted at the same size and scale (though sometimes Peter and Paul are slightly larger), showing them all as equal. Notice too that there is a space between Peter and Paul. This is the space reserved for Christ, though occasionally one will find Mary seated here instead.

What of the old king and the rest? The old king is Cosmos, representing all of humanity, and the darkened doorway from which he is emerging is the world darkened by sin. The cloth he carries holds the teachings of the twelve, bearing the light of the Holy Spirt. Some say the doorway he emerges from reminds them of the Tower of Babel, whose curse the Holy Spirit has come to break.

A Coptic icon of Pentecost

Into The World

From this moment forward, Christ’s earthly ministry has been brought fully to completion. The Apostles go forth to preach and to teach, spreading far afield. This is almost, but not quite, the end of the Paschal cycle that began months ago. There is no kneeling in church during from Pascha through Pentecost, but either at Vespers the night before, or at Vespers the evening of, the Church collectively kneels for the first time since Holy Week for what are known as the Kneeling Prayers. These are all at once sober, penitential, and deeply thankful prayers that reiterate the message of the entire ministry of Christ and of the Paschal cycle.

And for the week to come we do not fast but celebrate, but in preparation for a variable-length time known as the Apostles Fast, which runs from 1 week after Pentecost through until the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. This fasting is to honor the Apostles and all who came after them, especially those martyred for their faith. At the conclusion of Sts. Peter and Paul, at last we conclude the entirety of the Paschal and Pentecostal cycle.

Author’s Notes

In a darkened chapel in the hills north of Pittsburgh, as the rain pounded outside, the nuns sang and chanted the Vigil of Pentecost while the rest of us stood and prayed in the back. As the vigil reached its crescendo, more lights were lit, and the abbess, using a long pole, set the brightened chandeliers swaying around, making the shadows in the corners dance. The Holy Spirit was descending, and the Earth was quaking in celebration. The bell tower pealed loudly above the storms.

We returned in the morning for the hours, Orthros (Matins), and Liturgy, followed by an early celebration of Vespers and the kneeling prayers. The rains let up here and there, enough afterward to briefly see some of the flower gardens before I had to leave the monastery grounds and return home from a weekend journey (I wrote about this Here, last year).

This year, of course, no retreat or pilgrimage is possible. In fact, I haven’t been to church (save for maintenance work) since the first Sunday of Lent, now 3 months gone. Most of us haven’t, in fact. Yet we take comfort in knowing that at times, especially during the Communist or Muslim persecutions, or during wars, that many of the faithful went for years without setting foot inside any church at all, and if they received the Eucharist it was only in secret. Saint Mary of Egypt (see Here), spent 40 years in the desert. Our time has been far shorter, and was never meant to be permanent.

But this time of trial, this weird prolonged Lent, is coming to an end. In fact, I should be in church tomorrow at last, welcoming the descent of the Holy Spirit after our own time of confused trial. There won’t be many of us (we are not allowed full capacity just yet), and we must wear our masks, but we will return.

Finally two other notes. First, of course for the western churches your Pentecost was celebrated a week earlier. Of course, our Pascha (Easter) was also a week later than yours, and Pentecost is tied to that. For those of us on the Revised Julian calendar, we will resume regular programming shortly.

Secondly – I should have had this written last Summer. But I got behind. Very very behind. I did not have my essay on the Ascension up until August, already almost 2 months late by then. Then this essay proved challenging to write anyway, and life intervened besides, so I set it aside and aimed to have it done this year. This puts me too back on regular programming, and I’ll hopefully have the icons on the Transfiguration and the Dormition of the Theotokos actually out when they’re supposed to be out. As time permits I hope to have a couple of other supplementary essays up too, though I make no promises on when those will land.


Liturgical texts from www.antiochian.org

Scripture quoted from both NASB and NKJV

Alfeyev, Met. Hilarion. Orthodox Christianity, Vol. IV: The Worship and Liturgical Life of the Orthodox Church, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Yonkers, NY, 2016

Kidd, Fr. David (ed), and Ursache, Mother Gabriella (ed). Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodion and Pentecostarian. Holy Dormition Monastery Press, Rives Junction Michigan, 2005.




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  1. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo

    Skip, I think I have to guiltily admit that after your posts on Icons and the import of the Orthodox Church than the Catholic Church.

    Which gives me (more) guilt.

    No worries. As a Catholic, I’m well positioned to deal with more guilt.

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