Today we celebrate Pentecost: the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, and through them, to the entire world. In Orthodoxy, when we commemorate these biblical events, we do not simply remember them as happening in the past, but we celebrate that they are happening now. The Holy Spirit continues to heal us while pouring life, healing, and beauty into us, the people of the Lord, and into the whole world.
From Pascha (Easter) until yesterday, the Orthodox priests wear white vestments in celebration of the resurrection of Christ. On Pentecost, the Roman Catholic priests wear red to signify the “tongues of fire” that came upon the apostles. In Orthodoxy, we wear green because that color symbolizes life. The Holy Spirit breathes new life into all of those who open their hearts.
In Orthodoxy, we celebrate this Life that is “everywhere present and filling all things,” knowing that no matter our struggle, no matter our sin, no matter our questions, God embraces our whole being and is never absent from the heart that has made a genuine effort to turn toward Him.
The meaning of the tongues of fire
While some groups such as Pentecostals heavily emphasize every believer speaking in tongues, pointing to the day of Pentecost as the proof that those who are filled with the Holy Spirit will utter things that are indiscernible, the Orthodox people I have spoken to have a slightly different perspective. For us, the apostles speaking in “tongues” was threefold:
- It witnessed to the Jews making their pilgrimage into Judea for Pentecost. These Jews were from all over the Roman Empire and spoke a variety of languages. The apostles did not utter foreign languages and dialects just so that they could prove they had God’s Spirit, it was to minister to those around them. Therefore, the diverse tongues served a specific purpose.
- The tongues showed the universality of the Christian faith. No longer was it just a Jewish Messiah who had come to free the Jews. But the very first act of the Holy Spirit was to enable the apostles to reach out to every Kingdom of the world. Thousands were added to their numbers that morning.
- Lastly, it shows that the Holy Spirit is present within us as fire. Our God is a consuming fire and the tongues of fire represent both the illuminating and caustic properties of God’s dwelling within us: illuminating if our hearts are inclined toward repentance, caustic if we seek earthly treasures and pleasures of the flesh.
Finding the Spirit in liturgical worship
When I first started exploring Orthodoxy, I assumed that there would be a stifling of God’s Spirit through the liturgy. I come from a charismatic background and most of us with that mindset assume that if things are not spontaneous, then they are not “Spirit-led” or “Spirit filled.” And honestly, my first few months of exploring the faith felt pretty dry.
But I followed a liturgical form of prayer from an Orthodox prayer book because I found it to be beautiful. The prayers were focused on God and not myself, which I realized felt more correct. I also began following the Orthodox practice of utilizing the “Jesus Prayer” to bring myself into communion with my Creator. With some time, I found that the Holy Spirit is overwhelmingly present in liturgical forms of prayer and worship. It is I who was closed to the Spirit’s moving.
I began to understand that Orthodoxy is not simply another branch of Christianity, it is the dynamic way to Life in Christ.