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.

My 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.

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13 Responses to “Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost”

  1. Meg Says:

    *Love* those trees. The first time I saw it, I was dazzled by the beauty of it. Now I look forward to it every year!

  2. dean Arnold Says:

    This fresh perspective on the Holy Spirit seems timely for our green age.

  3. Dana Ames Says:

    Many in my parish wear green clothing too.

    For lots of personal connections to the meaning of this day, I was praying to be received on Pentecost/Holy Trinity Sunday. God granted me that grace. I am grateful, and continue to pray that I may never take for granted that into which I have been received.

    Words fail.

    Dana

  4. Georgia Says:

    Life truly only comes to us by the Holy Spirit.

    The Church has been given three sacred Ikons of The Trinity to guard: Love, Truth and Life, that signify the holy character of The IAM GOD.

    These are present on The Eucharist Table by the Wine (representing Jesus Christ, Holy Love redeeming and transcendent, His Blood poured out for us) the Bread (representing The Father, Holy Truth, The Word, His Body broken and given for us) and the Candle flame (representing the Holy Spirit, Life, revelation, the power of God). Of course, they are all One in nature, power and purpose. Christ is the Word Incarnate. GOD is Love. The Spirit spreads Love and reveals Truth. Jesus claimed the properties of The Three: ‘IAM The Way (of Love, compassion, mercy) The Truth and The Life.’

    When the Church sins, individually and collectively, our sin always distorts, darkens or obscures the Ikon of God in us and thus to the world. It is as dangerous though street lamps have been put out, street signs changed, pits dug and land mines laid in the streets.

    May we renew our committment to reflect the Holy Troika to love and to glow with the power of Holy Truth, Love and Life.

  5. easton Says:

    thank you for this, father stephen. georgia, that was a wonderful way of “putting it.” my 82 year old mother was with me recently. she is seen in her community as “the real deal,” although she would shake her head at that. she started the al-anon program in her hometown and truly looks at the heart. she shared with me that she has come to two truths, in her old age. love is all that matters in the end and you can’t put god in a box……

  6. davidperi Says:

    There were lots of green trees in the church this morning. But, there was a blessing of the waters when the priest blessés the water, dip the cross, etc. After the service many Russians took jugs or bottles filled with this water. Fr…could you find a link or explain this practice because I still cannot find an explanation for this. The service I attend is not in English but Finnish, and sometimes Russian thrown in, and my mother tonque is in English. Thank you…blessings.

  7. d.burns Says:

    Fr. Bless,

    Someone told me recently that the reason for green vestments was in that bygone era, for kneeling vespers those who could not afford small pillows to use would bring pieces of sod (grass) ripped from a nearby field. So many use to do this that the vestments would turn green from the grass stains. Don’t know if there’s any truth to that but I thought it was an amusing antidote.

  8. Seraphim Says:

    A joy to read Fr. Stephen.

    Isn’t it something that the Russian Church should have so much to say about the early Church (not to mention the pre-Incarnate Church)?

    Many years!

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    davidperi,
    The blessing of the waters is known as the “Lesser Blessing” of the Waters. This is done on a number of occasions in the year (particularly around Theophany), but appropriately at Pentecost as well. People were carrying home blessed water to be used a home (for blessing, some will drink it, etc.).

  10. Fr. Milovan Katanic Says:

    In the Serbian tradition we have grass in the church. During the kneeling prayers the people make wreaths with it.

  11. Marsha Says:

    It was a beautiful service with the green trees. And the Kneeling Prayers were so profoundly moving. But I had to LOL at kneeling on the squares of sod! I was imagining what it would look like if we all came in with our “patch of land” so to speak to kneel on!

  12. Damaris Says:

    Marsha — Reminiscent of Woody Allen’s father in “Love and Death!”

  13. Marsha Says:

    Damaris, I’m not familiar with that movie. I’ll have to check it out!

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