Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost

From the Feast of Pentecost

The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.

The first time I saw trees in an Orthodox Church was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery in Pennsylvania, just after Pentecost Sunday. I was completely caught off guard. Though I had been in a number of different Churches over the years, I had never been in a parish of Russian background for the feast of Pentecost. Thus I had missed the Slavic practice of bringing trees into Church for the feast of Pentecost. It was wonderful – like going into Church only to find a forest.

Holy Resurrection at Pentecost, 1My Western background left me completely unprepared for this Eastern take on the feast of the gift of the Spirit to the Church. In Western Churches, Pentecost particularly focuses on the “fire” of the Holy Spirit lighting on the disciples in the upper room and the “empowerment” of the Church for mission. Traditionally in the West, the color of the feast is red (for the fire).

In the East, the color of the feast is green – which is also the color worn for the feast days of monastic saints. In the West, green is the “ordinary” color worn in the “in between” Sundays and weekdays of the Calendar. For the Orthodox, gold serves this function. 

But I found myself in the midst of trees on a major feast that was “green.” I was simply baffled.

In Russian practice the feast is normally referred to as the feast of the Trinity (Troitsa) rather than Pentecost, or “Pentecost” is listed as an afterthought (Pentecost). It is obvious that something quite different is at work in the understanding of the feast day. 

Both East and West keep the feast as the day upon which the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles. Orthodoxy does not ignore the various tongues with which the Apostles began to speak as they announced the gospel to those assembled in Jerusalem. However, as noted in the verse quoted at the beginning of this article – those tongues are seen as a spiritual counterpart to the confusion of the tower of Babel, when men in their hubris sought to build a tower into heaven. The tongues which came upon them only proclaimed darkness and confusion and brought to an end the last great ecumenical effort of humanity. 

The Church is God’s vision of united mankind – a union achieved through the gift of God and not by human effort. It is a union which maintains a diversity of sorts (the languages do not become one “super” language – so much for the “unity” of Latin) but a diversity whose unity is found in true union with the one, living and true God. The gospel proclaimed by the apostles on the day of Pentecost, though preached in many languages, was one and the same gospel. 

One may still wonder why the feast becomes a feast of the Trinity. Like the feast of Theophany (the Baptism of Christ), Pentecost is a feast in which the revelation of the Holy Trinity is made manifest. The Spirit is the gift of the Father – given through the Son. There were many centuries that passed before a parish was named for the Trinity.

Among the first within the Orthodox world was the Lavra (Monastery) of the Holy Trinity outside of Moscow, founded by St. Sergius in the 14th century. His vision of the common life was seen as an earthly icon of the Divine Life of the Holy Trinity in which each of the Divine Persons shared a common life. The monastery was itself a place of spiritual rebirth for the Russian land as it began to come out from under the oppression of the Tatar yoke. The spiritual life of Holy Trinity monastery was a spiritual awakening for the land when Russians remembered that they were brothers of one another and shared a common life. This common life became the strength that allowed them to assert their freedom. 

Of course, all of the above is both interesting and true but has yet to explain the trees. The Jewish feast of Pentecost (fifty days after the Passover) marks the beginning of the harvest feast. The first-fruits of the harvest are brought to the temple to be blessed of God. For Christians the harvest that is sought is the harvest of a renewed humanity and the renewal of creation. Thus the trees are a representation of the created order, assembled together with the people of God, awaiting and receiving the gift of the Spirit through whom everything is made new. 

It is a very rich feast – one that is filled with meaning (as is appropriate). But all of the meaning takes as its source the gift to creation of the “Lord and Giver of Life,” the Holy Spirit. Just as we are told in Genesis: 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

With a word, God speaks, and where the Spirit hovered, life comes forth.

So it is in the life of the Church and in creation today. Where God speaks, renewed life comes forth. All of creation groans and travails, awaiting the final great Word that will signal the renewal of all things.  For now, we see that promise foreshadowed by trees in Church and green on the priests and by the joy of our hearts.

19 Responses to “Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost”

  1. Brian Barker Says:

    I agree with the tower of Babel comment.

    In today’s World the language problem is still relevant and we need a common international language!

    Can I ask your readers to check http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU as well as http://www.lernu.net

  2. fatherstephen Says:

    I would suggest that there is already a common international language: English. No language has probably been spoken by so many in all of history. No other candidate – certainly not esperanto – can hope to gain such currency. English became such for perhaps less than good reasons (Empire, American world dominance, etc.). But it’s a very international language. I don’t personally know anyone who speaks Esperanto.

  3. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    The Russian Orthodox focus on the Trinity at Pentecost is balanced. Too much emphasis is given in the West to the tongues of fire and speaking in tongues. Pentecostalism focuses too narrowly on the empowerment by the Holy Spirit, the result being that the Trinity becomes divided. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and is of one essence with the Father and the Son. Pentecost is about the Holy Trinity, the very same Triune God who acted in Genesis 11.

    I was remninded of the Psalm that speaks of the trees clapping their hands in praise of God.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    I would agree about the balance. I think I would describe the Orthodox celebration of Pentecost (Trinity) to be a celebration of fullness, which is the gift of the Spirit. Father Stephen +

  5. katia Says:

    Father Bless,

    Another way to explain the representation of the trees, i found when read this sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday by Archbishop Andrei Rymarenko.

    “The Holy Church convinces us of this, comparing our spiritual life with what goes on in nature: the death of nature in winter, its revival in the beauty of spring and summer, and the yielding of fruit in fall. It is the same with the soul of a human being. After the sluggishness of spiritual slumber, a person receives the spirit of adoption in order to unite in one family and to receive what the Lord gives in His plan of salvation — His Body and Blood, the Mystery of the Tree of Life, which Adam lost in Paradise.”

    holytrinitymission.org

  6. Glenn Penner Says:

    Wonderful blog. Thank you so much for helping us non-Orthodox believers to see the richness of this celebration.

  7. Bill Chapman Says:

    I hope you’ll let me return to the topic of an international language. You write “I don’t personally know anyone who speaks Esperanto.” I suspect that you may have met Esperanto-speakers. It’s like saying you don’t know anyone who has diabetes or plays the mouth organ. This aspect of their life may not come upin conversation,but is noless real for that.

    Anyway,I’d like to add that you write well and in a challenging way.

  8. Fr. Nathanael Says:

    In the Catholic Church the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity falls on the Octave day of Pentecost. In our previous calendar Pentecost was celebrated for an entire week as the same feast day. It closed with a feast in honor of the Trinity. So, I am happy to see that this is another point in which we can share our celebrations of God’s gifts to us. Please also accept my thanks for one of the most thoughful blogs I have found!

  9. Ian Says:

    Just re languages, my 1 cent: English has risen; English will fall…like so many ‘world languages’ before it. Language needs to be owned by people, so while I see a desire for a world language, such as Esperanto, as a good idea in principle, people are not persuaded by such such arguments generally — unless the benefits are clear. I suspect when English dies as a world language, it will not be a ‘created’ language that takes it place…though I may be wrong Bill. As someone who loves languages and linguistics, and feels diminished when we ‘lose’ one, I do hope all is going well in the Esperanto world: bonan ŝancon!

    A blessed Feast Day to you and your parish Father! And another wonderful, and thought-provoking, post. I was struck on my first Pentecost in the Orthodox Church as the link to Babel: fascinating. And thank you for the information on the Russian celebration of this Feast.

  10. Ian Says:

    Oh, and Fr Nathanael: I pray you sing “I Bind Unto Myself Today” loudly on Trinity Sunday — one of my favourite hymns and one I play on CD regularly. A blessed Feast of Trinity Sunday!

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    It was the processional hymn when I was ordained an Anglican priest. One of a number of English hymns authored by an Orthodox saint (at least the words)!

  12. Darlene Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I was directed to your blog just a few short days ago. The Lord has seen fit to draw me toward the ancient faith, the Orthodox Church. For over a year, I vacillated back and forth about attending a Divine Liturgy. This morning I was resolute. For the first time, I attended Divine Liturgy. Lo and behold, there were numerous branches covered in green leaves inside the church. Afterward, I came home and read your article. How timely!

    Pray that I have the resolve to become Orthodox. My family and friends are Evangelical Protestants and don’t quite understand why I am on this path. Their stance on my situation goes something like this: “Why can’t you find a good Bible-believing church that preaches the gospel?” They think I would be denying all that the Lord has done in my life within the Protestant Evangelical tradition, should I leave it all for the Orthodox faith.

    But I say, how can I turn aside from or ignore all that I have learned about the Apostolic faith and remain in a church that does not recognize 1500 years of history and Tradition?

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Darlene,

    May God give you grace. For the sake of our salvation (in its Orthodox sense) family and others are allowed to set these stumbling blocks before us – not that we may stumble, but that we may learn all the more to love God and the truth of the Faith. Ultimately, there is no reason to become Orthodox other than the fact that in this faith is found the fullness of Christ – the Pearl of Great Price.

    It is almost self-evident when people ask us to do something that would be easier. Though they love us and mean us no harm – may God give them grace as well. My parents were 80 years old when they came to the Church for Chrismation – a joy I could not have imagined when I first started down this path.

  14. Ian Says:

    Prayers ascending from Down Under for you too Darlene; God bless.

  15. Margaret Says:

    Thank you for this post, it is a blessing! Four years ago on Pentecost Sunday I visited our St. Ignatius for the first time with my husband who had been out to a couple of Divine Liturgies. Although we had been attending a faithful Episcopal (Anglo-Catholic in style) church, we knew it was time to leave that denomination and were beginning to look at other places of worship.

    Pentecost Sunday in the Orthodox Christian church was a gift from God to my life because I had not heard our Lord worshiped with adoration and frank acknowledgement that He is the Lover of mankind since I was a child in my grandparents Evangelical Methodist church.

    Time after time during that Divine Liturgy on Pentecost Sunday, God took me back to my childhood where I learned that He is Love and that He is to be worshiped in Holiness and Truth.

    Then came the kneeling Vespers which our church tries to do following Divine Liturgy. We prayed and prayed and prayed and my heart overflowed with gratefulness to God for leading our family to His Church in this World, where He is acknowledged as the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, worthy of all worship and praise.

    Thanks for giving me the outlet to share!
    May God bless us all and continually draw all to Himself!

  16. Darlene Says:

    Margaret,

    I found the kneeling Vespers so very humbling and that same kind of gratefulness of which you speak flooded my heart. The whole Divine Liturgy was so Spirit-filled in an ‘other-worldly” sense that I felt I could not have enough of God and I didn’t want to leave. During the Liturgy I felt drawn in by the Holy Spirit with a sense that I was participating in the worship of the Blessed Trinity in a most profound way. I had never heard Christians worshipping the Triune God with such reverence, “We glorify, praise, and adore Thee, most holy Trinity. Truly we worship a most awesome God filled with compassion and love. What a most holy faith we have, filled with mystery and yet knowing, for while the “secret things belong to the Lord our God,” He has seen fit to reveal Himself in human flesh and make a way for us to be saved.

    I too, am familiar with the Methodists and their emphasis on God’s love. I attended a Wesleyan College and worshipped with the Pilgrim Holiness and the Wesleyans (off-shoot of Methodists) for a number of years. At the end of the service many a parishioner would go to the altar and cast themselves upon the mercy of God, while others would be laying hands on some for physical and spiritual healing.

    Later on, however, we (husband and children) began attending a 5 point Reformed Calvinist Church. There the TULIP was taught which stressed that God preordains before the foundations of the world, those who are to be saved and those who are to be damned, in which He takes great pleasure. Ten years of attending such a church does indeed effect one’s outlook on God’s love. One can be left contemplating, did God elect me to be saved or damned…if damned, there is not one thing I can do about it. And so some question whether or not they indeed have true faith or false faith, and if the latter, then it will be revealed that they were never really saved to begin with.

    Ah…but thanks be to Jesus Christ, for the love of God of which John Wesley preached and taught remained within me. Mr. Wesley had some very stern things to say about Calvinist doctrine, and yet he displayed such compassion and love toward those who held to that belief system. He was very close to Orthodoxy in his teachings on imparted righteousness and entire sanctification.

    I never would have thought in a million years that the Orthodox faith is the faith that holds to the Apostles’ teaching in its fullness. Somehow that just didn’t resonate with my Evangelical Protestant thinking. 🙂

    In Christ’s Immeasurable Love,

    Darlene

  17. Mary Says:

    Darlene,

    you have my prayers! I was brought into the Church 8 years ago, without any other family. My husband is supportive, thankfully, but he is not interested. It can be hard and sometimes lonely, but if you can find a good spiritual father and loving parish to be your “family”, it eases the way.

    Mary

  18. Dana Ames Says:

    Darlene,
    I hear you, and am praying.
    I was chrismated yesterday, also without any other family. My husband has been neither interested nor supportive, but he also has not stood in my way. Fr. Stephen and Mary are right. God will help you and reveal the path to you.

    Dana

  19. Joel Says:

    Darlene,
    There is an echo in the chamber. I was Chrismated yesterday after 60 years as a protestant and coming from a fine, fine church. My wife at this time does not have any interest, but like others, she does not speak negatively about my journey.

    Pentecost Sunday is a great day to be Chrismated.

    I will have you in my prayers Darlene, that your journey might be complete in the appropriateness of time.

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