What do you say when someone starts singing “Happy Birthday” to the Church on Pentecost? Not so fast…
This past Sunday was an important Sunday in the life of the Church; it was the feast of Pentecost (click here to read my post on its meaning).
Sometimes, you’ll hear people refer to Pentecost as the birthday of the Church. Perhaps, they’ll even celebrate with a birthday cake at fellowship, but is it really the birthday of the Church?
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website states,
Some erroneously hold that Pentecost is the “birthday of the Church.” But this is not true, for the teaching of the holy Fathers is that the Church existed before all other things.
In the second vision of The Shepherd of Hermas we read: “Now brethren, a revelation was made unto me in my sleep by a youth of exceeding fair form, who said to me, ‘Whom thinkest thou the aged woman, from whom thou receivedst the book, to be?’ I say, ‘The Sibyl.’ ‘Thou art wrong,’ saith he, ‘she is not.’ ‘Who then is she?’ I say. ‘The Church,’ saith he. I said unto him, ‘Wherefore then is she aged?’ ‘Because,’ saith he, ‘she was created before all things; therefore is she aged, and for her sake the world was framed.”‘
Saint Gregory the Theologian also speaks of “the Church of Christ … both before Christ and after Christ” (PG 35:1108-9).
Saint Epiphanius of Cyprus writes, “The Catholic Church, which exists from the ages, is revealed most clearly in the incarnate advent of Christ” (PG 42:640).
Saint John Damascene observes, “The Holy Catholic Church of God, therefore, is the assembly of the holy Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Evangelists, and Martyrs who have been from the very beginning, to whom were added all the nations who believed with one accord” (PG 96, 1357c).
According to Saint Gregory the Theologian, “The Prophets established the Church, the Apostles conjoined it, and the Evangelists set it in order” (PG 35, 589 A).
The Church existed from the creation of the Angels, for the Angels came into existence before the creation of the world, and they have always been members of the Church. Saint Clement, Bishop of Rome, says in his second epistle to the Corinthians, the Church “was created before the sun and moon”; and a little further on, “The Church existeth not now for the first time, but hath been from the beginning” (II Cor. 14).
This is very important distinction.
Many of the earliest heresies of the Church – including Gnosticism, Marcionism, Valentinianism, Montanism, and the Ebionites – in one way or another, either separated the Old Testament from the New, or separated the god who created from the god who redeems.
In other words, Christ was a new revelation, not a fulfillment.
By stating that Pentecost is the birth of the Church one falls into the same trap as these early heresies. It creates a distortion in God’s revelation by making it seem like Pentecost has created something new.
But it hasn’t!
Rather, It’s a Revelation of Fulfillment
Instead of thinking of Pentecost as the birth of the Church, we should think about it in this way:
It is the pentecostal descent of the Spirit that leads the apostles into the fullness of the truth of Jesus, and energizes their mission to evangelize others and draw them consciously into a life-giving relations with God, through his Christ (John McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture, pg. 7).
In other words, with giving of the Holy Spirit, not only is the law written on our hearts, but we see also the full revelation of God: a Trinitarian God of love.
And, this is the very same revelation of grace that began with creation, and was reveled to Abraham, to Moses through the Law, and through the proclamation of the prophets.
This revelation has now come to be completed, seen in its entirety.
When Christ was crucified and rose from the dead, it was to the Old Testament that the apostles turned to understand who Jesus was.
It was by reading the Old Testament in the shadow of the cross that led the disciples to proclaim Jesus as the anointed Son of God.
From the Beginning
So, Pentecost is not the birth of the Church because the Church, as the Body of Christ, has existed from the beginning.
(This is also why those bumper stickers that proclaim Orthodoxy to be “2,000 years old” are problematic!)
It’s just that with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, that we see the big picture: how it all fits together.
There isn’t a different sort of revelation with the New Testament. In fact, the Church has always proclaimed the Christian faith as the foundation of the world:
As the Prophets beheld; as the Apostles taught; as the Church received; as the teachers dogmatized; as the universe has agreed; as grace has shone forth; as truth has been proven; as Christ has rewarded. This is what we believe; this is what we declare; this is what we preach, Christ our true God… Christ we worship as God and Master… This is the Faith of the Fathers! This is the Faith of the Orthodox! This is the Faith which has established the universe! (Synodikon of the 7th Ecumenical Council, proclaimed on the Sunday of Orthodoxy)
A Different Birthday Tune
Perhaps, instead of celebrating the birth of the Church, we should remember our spiritual birth!
When we are baptized, we become a new creation – that is, the church gives birth to us. And, in this way, the Church becomes our Mother.
So, at Pentecost, let us go out and proclaim to all that Pentecost is the good news that they too can be reborn and have the Church as their Mother!
P.S. Come, Experience the Fullness of God’s Revelation
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