Holy Pentecost

By: Fr. Alexander SchmemannRead time: 20 mins7556 Hits

Holy Pentecost

In the Church’s annual liturgical cycle, Pentecost is “the last and great day.” It is the celebration by the Church of the coming of the Holy Spirit as the end – the achievement and fulfillment – of the entire history of salvation. For the same reason, however, it is also the celebration of the beginning: it is the “birthday” of the Church as the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, of the new life in Christ, of grace, knowledge, adoption to God and holiness.

This double meaning and double joy is revealed to us, first of all, in the very name of the feast. Pentecost in Greek means fifty, and in the sacred biblical symbolism of numbers, the number fifty symbolizes both the fullness of time and that which is beyond time: the Kingdom of God itself. It symbolizes the fullness of time by its first component: 49, which is the fullness of seven (7 x 7): the number of time. And, it symbolizes that which is beyond time by its second component: 49 + 1, this one being the new day, the “day without evening” of God’s eternal Kingdom. With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fullness revealed, all gifts bestowed: it belongs to us now to “appropriate” these gifts, to be that which we have become in Christ: participants and citizens of His Kingdom.



The all-night Vigil service begins with a solemn invitation:

“Let us celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, The appointed day of promise, and the fulfillment of hope, The mystery which is as great as it is precious.”

In the coming of the Spirit, the very essence of the Church is revealed:

“The Holy Spirit provides all, Overflows with prophecy, fulfills the priesthood, Has taught wisdom to illiterates, has revealed fishermen as theologians, He brings together the whole council of the Church.”

In the three readings of the Old Testament (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Joel 2:23-32; Ezekiel 36:24-28) we hear the prophecies concerning the Holy Spirit. We are taught that the entire history of mankind was directed towards the day on which God “would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh.” This day has come! All hope, all promises, all expectations have been fulfilled. At the end of the Aposticha hymns, for the first time since Easter, we sing the hymn: “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth?,” the one with which we inaugurate all our services, all prayers, which is, as it were, the life-breath of the Church, and whose coming to us, whose “descent” upon us in this festal Vigil, is indeed the very experience of the Holy Spirit “coming and abiding in us.”

Having reached its climax, the Vigil continues as an explosion of joy and light for “verily the light of the Comforter has come and illumined the world.” In the Gospel reading (John 20:19-23) the feast is interpreted to us as the feast of the Church, of her divine nature, power and authority. The Lord sends His disciples into the world, as He Himself was sent by His Father. Later, in the antiphons of the Liturgy, we proclaim the universality of the apostles’ preaching, the cosmical significance of the feast, the sanctification of the whole world, the true manifestation of God’s Kingdom.


The liturgical peculiarity of Pentecost is a very special Vespers of the day itself. Usually this service follows immediately the Divine Liturgy, is “added” to it as its own fulfillment. The service begins as a solemn “summing up” of the entire celebration, as its liturgical synthesis. We hold flowers in our hands symbolizing the joy of the eternal spring, inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit. After the festal Entrance, this joy reaches its climax in the singing of the Great Prokeimenon:

“Who is so great a God as our God?”

Then, having reached this climax, we are invited to kneel. This is our first kneeling since Easter. It signifies that after these fifty days of Paschal joy and fullness, of experiencing the Kingdom of God, the Church now is about to begin her pilgrimage through time and history. It is evening again, and the night approaches, during which temptations and failures await us, when, more than anything else, we need Divine help, that presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who has already revealed to us the joyful End, who now will help us in our effort towards fulfillment and salvation.

All this is revealed in the three prayers which the celebrant reads now as we all kneel and listen to him. In the first prayer, we bring to God our repentance, our increased appeal for forgiveness of sins, the first condition for entering into the Kingdom of God.

Again and again on bended knees, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord, have mercy.

(And as we bend our knees to the ground and uncover, the Priest reads the prayers from the Bema, facing west, in a loud voice for all to hear.)

Immaculate, undefiled, without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, unsearchable, unchangeable, unsurpassed, immeasurable, long-suffering Lord, who alone possess immortality and dwell in unapproachable light; who made the heaven, the earth and the sea and all that was created in them; who grant to all their requests before they ask; we pray and beseech you, Master who love mankind, the Father of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who for our sake and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and Mary, the Ever-Virgin and glorious Mother of God.

Teaching us first by words and later also showing us by deeds, when he underwent the saving Passion, he granted us, your humble, sinful and unworthy servants, an example to offer supplications by the bending of neck and knees for our sins and those committed in ignorance by the people. Do you, then, who are full of mercy and love for mankind, hear us on whatever day we call upon you; but especially on this day of Pentecost, on which after our Lord Jesus Christ had been taken up and been enthroned at your right hand, God and Father, he sent down on his disciples and Apostles the holy Spirit, who settled on each one of them and they were all filled with his inexhaustible grace and spoke in strange tongues of your mighty works and prophesied.

Now therefore hear us as we pray, remember us, humble and condemned, and turn back the captivity of our souls. Receive us as we fall before you and cry out, ?We have sinned?. On you we have been cast from the womb. From our mother?s womb you are our God. But because our days have wasted away in vanity, we have been stripped of your help, we have been deprived of all defense. But confident of your compassion we cry, ?Do not remember the sins of our youth and cleanse us of our secret faults. Do not cast us aside in the time of old age. When our strength fails, do not abandon us. Before we return to the earth, count us worthy to turn back to you and give heed to us with kindness and grace. Measure our iniquities by your acts of compassion. Set against the multitude of our offenses the depth of your compassion. Look from your holy height, Lord, upon your people here present and who await from you rich mercy. Visit us in your goodness; deliver us from the oppression of the devil; make our lives safe with your holy and sacred laws. Entrust your people to a faithful Angel guardian; gather us all into your kingdom; give pardon to all who hope in you; forgive their sins and ours; purify us by the operation of your holy Spirit; destroy all the wiles of the foe against us?.

(He adds this prayer:)

Blessed are you Lord, Master almighty, who made the day light with the light of the sun and the night radiant with the rays of fire; who have granted us to pass through the length of the day and to draw near the beginnings of the night. Hear our supplication and that of all your people. And pardoning all of us our offenses, voluntary and involuntary, accept our evening entreaties and send down the multitude of your rich mercy and acts of compassion on your inheritance. Wall us about with your holy Angels; arm us with the arms of justice; fence us with the rampart of your truth; guard us by your power; deliver us from every misfortune and from every trick of the adversary. Grant us also that both the present day with the coming night and all the days of our life may be perfect, holy, peaceful, sinless, without stumbling, without dreams, at the prayers of the holy Mother of God and of all the Saints who have been well-pleasing to you since time began.

In the second prayer, we ask the Holy Spirit to help us, to teach us to pray and to follow the true path in the dark and difficult night of our earthly existence.

Again and again, on bended knees, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord, have mercy.

(The Priest prays as before:)

Lord Jesus Christ our God, who, while still present with us in this life, gave your peace to humankind, and ever grant the gift of the all-holy Spirit to the faithful as an inheritance which cannot be taken away, you sent down this grace today in a more manifest form to your Disciples and Apostles and gave eloquence to their lips with tongues of fire, through which we, every race of humankind, having received the knowledge of God in our own language by the hearing of the ear, have been enlightened by the light of the Spirit, delivered from the darkness of error and, by the distribution and supernatural force of the perceptible tongues of fire, have been taught faith in you and have been illumined to speak of you as God with the Father and the holy Spirit in one Godhead, power and authority.

Do you, then, the radiance of the Father, the unchangeable and unalterable stamp of his Essence and nature, the source of salvation and grace, open also the lips of me, a sinner, and teach me how I should and for whom I ought to pray, for you know the multitude of my sins, but your compassion will overcome their measureless number. For see, with fear I stand before you, having cast away despair of my soul into the sea of your mercy. Govern my life, by the ineffable power of your wisdom, you who govern all creation by a word, who are the fair haven of the storm-tossed, and make known to me the way in which I shall walk.

Grant to my thoughts the Spirit of your wisdom, to my folly the Spirit of understanding, with the Spirit of your fear overshadow my deeds. Renew a right Spirit within my inward parts and make firm the instability of my mind with the sovereign Spirit, so that guided each day by your good Spirit to what is profitable, I may be found worthy to do your commandments and always keep in mind your Coming, which searches out all that we have done. Do not neglect me, so that I become deceived by the corrupted pleasures of the world, but give me strength to yearn for the enjoyment of the treasures which are to come. For you said, Master, that whatever someone asks in your name they receive without restraint from your co-eternal God and Father. And so I a sinner at the coming of your holy Spirit implore your goodness, ?The things that I have prayed for grant me for my salvation?. Yes, Lord, the loving and most generous giver of every benefaction, for it is you who give superabundantly more than we ask. It is you who are compassionate, merciful, who without sin became a partaker in our flesh and who in loving compassion bend down to those who bend the knee to you and became the atonement for our sins. Give your people, Lord, your acts of pity; hear us from your holy heaven; sanctify us by the power of your saving right hand; shelter us in the shelter of your wings; do not despise the works of your hands. Against you alone we have sinned, but it is you alone that we adore. We do not know how to worship a strange god, nor to spread out our hands, Master, to another god. Forgive us our offences and, accepting our supplications on our bended knees, stretch out to us all a helping hand. Accept the prayer of all as acceptable incense, rising up before your kingdom, above all goodness.

(And he adds the following prayer:)

Lord, Lord, who have delivered us from every arrow that flies by day, deliver us also from every deed that walks in darkness. Accept as an evening sacrifice the lifting up of our hands. Count us worthy also to pass through the stadium of the night untried by evils, and rescue us from every disturbance and fear which comes to us from the Devil. Grant our souls the grace of compunction and our thoughts concern for the examination at your dread and just judgement. Nail down our flesh with fear of you, and deaden our members that are on earth, so that, in the calm of sleep, we may be made radiant with joy by the contemplation of your judgments. Remove from us every unseemly imagining and harmful desire. Raise us up at the time for prayer strengthened in the faith and advancing in your commandments.


Finally, in the third prayer, we remember all those who have achieved their earthly journey, but who are united with us in the eternal God of Love.

Again and again, on bended knees, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord, have mercy.

(The Priest prays:)

Christ our God, ever-flowing Spring, source of life and illumination, co-eternal creative power of the Father, for the salvation of mortals, who fulfilled the whole dispensation with surpassing goodness; tore apart the indissoluble bonds of Death and the bars of Hell, trampling down multitudes of evil spirits; offered yourself as an unblemished oblation for our sake, giving your most pure body, intangible and inaccessible to every sin, as a sacrifice, and through this dread and inexpressible offering you granting us the grace of everlasting life. You descended into Hell, smashed the everlasting bars and showed the way up to those who sat below. With a bait of divine wisdom you hooked the author of evil, the dragon of the deep, bound him with cords of darkness in Tartarus and secured him with the unquenchable fire and the exterior darkness through your infinitely powerful strength. Glorious wisdom of the Father, who appeared to those in distress as a mighty helper and enlightened those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death, Lord of unending glory, beloved Son of the most high Father, eternal light from eternal light, Sun of justice, hear us who entreat you and give rest to the souls of your servants who have fallen asleep before us, our fathers, mothers and brethren and the rest of our relatives according to the flesh and all our kinsfolk of the household of the faith, whose memory we too now keep, because in you is the might of all things and in your hand you hold all the ends of the earth.

Master almighty, God of our fathers and Lord of mercy, Creator of the mortal and immortal race and of every human nature that is brought together and again dissolved, of life and death, of our sojourn here and our translation there, you apportion times to the living and establish the moments of death. You lead down to Hell and you lead up. You bind with weakness and release with power. You dispose all things for our use and direct what is to come for our advantage. You give life by hope of resurrection to those wounded by the sting of Death. Master of all things, our God and Saviour, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of those far off upon the sea, who on this final, great and saving day of Pentecost revealed to us the mystery of the holy, consubstantial, co-eternal, undivided and uncompounded Trinity and the coming and presence of your holy and life-giving Spirit poured out in the form of tongues of fire on your holy Apostles, setting them as Evangelists of our true faith, revealing them as confessors and heralds of true theology; who have also been pleased on this most perfect and saving Feast to receive suppliant prayers of atonement for those who are immured in Hell, granting us great hopes that repose and comfort will be sent down from you to the departed from the pains which hold them, hear us, lowly and wretched, who entreat you, and give rest to the souls of your servants who have fallen asleep before us in a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of refreshment, from which all grief, sorrow and sighing have fled away, and establish their spirits in the tents of the Just and count them worthy of peace and repose. Because the dead will not praise you, O Lord, nor do those in Hell have the freedom to offer you thanksgiving, but we the living bless you and implore you and bring before you atoning prayers and sacrifices on behalf of their souls.

(And he adds this Prayer:)

God, great and eternal, holy and lover of humankind, who have counted us worthy to stand at this hour before your unapproachable glory to hymn and praise your wonders, be gracious to us, your unworthy servants. Grant us grace to offer you without conceit and with a broken heart the thrice-holy hymn of glory and thanksgiving for your great gifts, which you have made us and always do so.

Remember, Lord, our weakness and do not destroy us with our iniquities, but in our humiliation show us your great mercy, so that fleeing the darkness of sin we may walk in the daylight of justice; and having put on the weapons of light we may persevere unassailed by any assault of the evil one, and that with boldness we may glorify you for all things, the only true God and lover of humankind. For indeed, Master and Maker of all things, truly great is your mystery: the temporary dissolution of your creatures and after this their restoration and repose to the ages. We give thanks to you for all things, for our entrances into this world and for our departures, which through your unfailing promise betoken for us beforehand our hopes of resurrection and unending life. Would that we may enjoy it at your future second Coming, for you are the author of our resurrection and the impartial judge who loves humankind of what we have done in life, the Master and Lord of our reward.

Through your supreme condescension you became a partaker with us in the same flesh and blood and in those passions of ours that are blameless by willingly submitting to temptation, and, possessing compassionate pity, having yourself suffered by being tempted, and, as you promised, have yourself become a helper for us who are tempted, and so you have also led us to dispassion. Accept therefore, Master, our supplications and entreaties, and give rest to all the fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, and children of each, and to every other kinsman and relative, and to all the souls who have gone to their rest before us in the hope of resurrection to eternal life, and establish their spirits and their names in the book of life and in the bosoms of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and in the land of the living, for the kingdom of heaven, in the Paradise of pleasure, through your shining Angels introducing them into your holy mansions. With them raise our bodies also on the day which you have appointed in accordance with your holy and unfailing promises. There is therefore no death for your servants, Lord, when we go out from the body and come to you, O God, but a translation from sorrowful things to better and more desirable, and rest and joy. But if we have in anything sinned against you, be gracious to us and them, because no one is clean of defilement before you, though they last but a day, except you alone, who appeared sinless upon earth, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we all hope to obtain mercy and forgiveness of sins. Therefore, as you are good and love humankind, remit, forgive, pardon us our faults, voluntary and involuntary, in knowledge and in ignorance, manifest and unnoticed, in deed, in thought, in word, of all our actions and movements. Give freedom and respite to those who have gone before us and bless all of us here present, granting a good and peaceful end to us and to all your people, and opening to us the compassion of your mercy and love for humankind at your dread and fearful Second Coming, and make us all worthy of your kingdom.

(He also adds this.)

Great and most high God, who alone possess immortality and dwell in unapproachable light, who made all creation with wisdom, who made a separation between the light and the darkness and placed the sun to rule the day and the moon and the stars to rule the night, who have counted us sinners worthy on this present day to come before your face with thanksgiving and to offer you our evening worship. Direct our prayer, Lord, like incense before you and accept it as a sweet fragrance. Grant us also that the present evening and the coming night may be peaceful; clothe us with the weapons of light; deliver us from every terror of the night and from every deed that operates in darkness, and give us sleep, which you have given for the repose of our weakness, free from every diabolical vision. Yes, Master of all things, giver of blessings, may we, being moved to compunction on our beds, call to mind your all-holy Name in the night, and made radiant by the meditation of your commandments may we rise up with joy of soul to give glory to your loving-kindness, offering supplications and entreaties to your compassion for our sins and those of all your people. Visit them in your mercy at the prayers of the holy Mother of God.

The joy of Easter has been completed and we again have to wait for the dawn of the Eternal Day. Yet, knowing our weakness, humbling ourselves by kneeling, we also know the joy and the power of the Holy Spirit who has come. We know that God is with us, that in Him is our victory.

Thus is completed the feast of Pentecost and we enter “the ordinary time” of the year. Yet, every Sunday now will be called “after Pentecost” – and this means that it is from the power and light of these fifty days that we shall receive our own power, the Divine help in our daily struggle. At Pentecost we decorate our churches with flowers and green branches – for the Church “never grows old, but is always young.” It is an evergreen, ever-living Tree of grace and life, of joy and comfort. For the Holy Spirit – “the Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life – comes and abides in us, and cleanses us from all impurity,” and fills our life with meaning, love, faith and hope.

Father Alexander Schmemann (1974)

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