This Sunday, we’ll be celebrating one of the Great Feasts of the Church, Pentecost. Most Christians know this feast as the celebration of the Holy Spirit. However, not many of us know of the connection to the Old Testament Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), or it’s connection to Passover and Pascha!
The Old Testament Pentecost
Originally, the Old Testament feast of Pentecost was called the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot in Hebrew. Scripture describes it as an agricultural feast that takes place seven weeks, or 50 days (the meaning of “Pentecost”), after Passover.
“You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you first put the sickle to the standing grain. Then you shall keep the feast of weeks to the LORD your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you; and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your manservant and your maidservant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place which the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt; and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.” (Deuteronomy 16:9-12 RSV)
By the time of Christ, it had become much more than an agrarian feast.
As many of you may remember from Sunday School, the Hebrews (the descendants of Abraham and Sarah), had moved to Egypt to escape a great famine. However, over the years, the Egyptians took advantage of them and the Hebrews became slaves of Pharaoh.
But, God did forget the Hebrews and he raised up the Prophet Moses through whom he worked great miracles to free his people, including the death of all of Egypt’s firstborn sons, an event remembered as Passover (Pascha). The firstborn sons of the Hebrews, though, were saved by the slaughtering of a lamb and spreading its blood on the doorposts and lintel of the house.
This event allowed the Hebrews to flee Egypt, and after crossing the Red Sea and fleeing into the desert, God brought the Hebrews to Mt. Sinai where Moses ascended the mountain and received the Law (Torah). When he returned, he face was aflame as if on fire.
It’s this event – the giving of the Law – that Pentecost celebrates. It’s a renewal of the covenant between God and his people. It establishes the boundaries – and blessings – by which the Hebrews become the nation of Israel, the people of God.
“Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it; that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life; and that your days may be prolonged. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them; that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 6:1-3 RSV)
In the events of Passover, adherents of the Old Testament celebrated the freeing of the Hebrews from slavery and, now, at Pentecost, God recreates these liberated people by making them a nation, blessing them to live in the Promised Land. Thus, these two feasts are intimately linked.
The New Testament Pentecost
In the New Testament, both Passover and Pentecost retain their original meaning in many ways, but they find a new fulfillment.
As mentioned above, Passover celebrated the freeing of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery through various plagues, and God sparing their firstborn sons through the sacrifice of a lamb.
By faith [Moses and the other Hebrews] kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the first-born might not touch them. (Hebrews 11:28 RSV)
But now, Christ is our Passover lamb, sacrificed so that we can gain freedom, not from Egypt, but from the ultimate enemy: death.
Peter of Alexandria, an early Christian writer, tells us,
After his public ministry, Jesus did not eat of the [Passover] lamb, but he himself suffered as the true Lamb in the Paschal feast… On that day, therefore, on which the Jews were about to eat the Passover in the evening, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was crucified. He was made the victim to those who were about to partake by faith of the mystery concerning him. This is what is written by the blessed Paul, “For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (I Corinthians 5:7). …as I have said, he himself, as the true Lamb, was sacrificed for us in the feast of the typical Passover on the day of the preparation… the typical Passover, therefore, then ceased, the true Passover being present… (Fragment 1.7).
Now, 50 days after Passover (usually known as “Easter” in the West), we celebrate Pentecost. But it’s much more than the celebration of the giving of the Law by God on Sinai.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4 RSV)
Now, we receive the Holy Spirit and the Law is spiritually written on our hearts.
Instead of Moses descending with his face aflame, all saints are encompassed with tongues of fire.
Through the giving of the Holy Spirit, we are recreated, not as a political nation, but much more: as adopted Sons of God!
We inherit not a geographical Promised Land, but the true Promised Land: life everlasting.
Tying the Two Together
So, as you can see, the original meaning of Passover and Pentecost remain the same, but they have new significance and are fulfilled in surprising ways.
Passover (Pascha or Easter) still celebrates freedom from slavery. Though, because Christ is now our Paschal Lamb, we are freed from our slavery to death.
Pentecost still celebrates the giving of the Law. Whereas it once celebrated the constitution of ancient Israel, giving them the Holy Land as an inheritance, it now celebrates the giving of the Law by means of the Holy Spirit making us a new Israel that inherits eternal blessings.
In fact, the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai was a continuation of a previous covenant, one between God and Abraham.
“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. … I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:4, 6-7 RSV)
Now that covenant is truly fulfilled through the sacrifice of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This means it isn’t just the Hebrews who are blessed by God, but it’s the entire world that now becomes a part of the everlasting covenant.
P.S. Come, Recieve the Holy Spirit this Pentecost!
St. Elias the Prophet (419 N. Grandview Ave., Dubuque)
Saturdays: Great Vespers, 4 pm
Sundays: Orthros, 9 am; Divine Liturgy, 10 am
Or find your nearest Orthodox Church by clicking here