03 July 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
55, Wednesday 3 July 2024

The icon of Pentecost in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity V). The Calendar of the Church of England today commemorates Saint Thomas the Apostle (3 July), whose faith was described in my reflection on an icon in this prayer diary yesterday. But, before today begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon depicting the Pentecost is ninth from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

John 20: 29-27 (NRSVUE):

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

A detail in the icon of Pentecost in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 18: Pentecost (Πεντηκοστή):

In recent weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The ninth in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of Pentecost, or Πεντηκοστή.

The Day of Pentecost is the fiftieth day of the Easter seasonand celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the fulfilment of the promises of Easter. You could say it is the birthday of the Church.

The word Pentecost is Greek in its origins, and comes from the Koinē Greek πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē), which means literally ‘fiftieth’.

In the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, one of the meanings of Pentecost refers to the festival of Shavuot. It is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, according to Deuteronomy 16: 10 and Exodus 34: 22, where it is referred to as the ‘Festival of Weeks’ or ἑορτὴν ἑβδομάδων (heortēn hebdomádōn).

The Septuagint uses the term πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē) in this context in both the Book of Tobit and II Maccabees. The translators of the Septuagint also use the word in two other senses: to signify the year of Jubilee (see Leviticus 25: 10), which falls every fiftieth year, and in several passages of chronology as an ordinal number. The term is also used in Hellenistic Jewish literature by Philo of Alexandria and Josephus to refer to the Festival of Shavuot.

The festival of Shavuot is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals in Judaism and is celebrated seven weeks and one day after the first day of Passover (see Deuteronomy 16: 9), or seven weeks and one day after the Sabbath (see Leviticus 23: 16). It is discussed in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Arakhin. The actual mention of 50 days comes from Leviticus 23: 16.

The Festival of Weeks is also known as the Feast of Harvest in Exodus 23: 16 and the Day of First Fruits in Numbers 28: 26. In Exodus 34: 22, it is called the ‘first fruits of the wheat harvest.’

At some time in the Hellenistic period, the ancient harvest festival also became a day of renewing the Noahic covenant, described in Genesis 9: 17, established between God and ‘all flesh that is upon the earth.’ After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, offerings could no longer be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and the focus of the festival shifted from agriculture to the Israelites receiving the Torah.

By that time, many Jews were living in the Diaspora and were Greek-speaking. According to Acts 2: 5-11, there were Jews from ‘every nation under heaven’ in Jerusalem, possibly visiting the city as pilgrims during Pentecost.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 includes numerous references to earlier biblical narratives such as the Tower of Babel, and the flood and creation narratives from Genesis. It also includes references to certain theophanies, particularly God’s presence on Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses.

Some scholars identify the οἶκος (oikos, ‘house’) that was the location of Pentecost in Acts 2: 2 with one of the 30 halls of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the text is lacking in specific details, and other scholars suggest that the author of Acts could have chosen the word ἱερόν (hieron, sanctuary, temple) if this meaning were intended, rather than ‘house.’ Some suggest that the ‘house’ could be the ‘upper room’ (ὑπερῷον, huperóon) mentioned in Acts 1: 12-26. But there is no literary evidence to confirm the location with certainty.

The events in Acts 2 are set against the backdrop of the celebration of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The author of Acts notes that the disciples ‘were all together in one place’ on the ‘day of Pentecost’ (ἡμέρα τῆς Πεντηκοστῆς, imera tis Pentekostes).

The gathered disciples were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’

The languages are difficult to enumerate, but the vast majority of these people, including the Jews and proselytes living in the diaspora who have come to Jerusalem from Crete, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia Minor, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, north Africa, and perhaps even Rome, may have been Greek speakers.

The largest Greek-speaking cities at the time were Alexandria and Ephesus, and at the time Latin was regarded as a vulgar language. Greek as a language had cultural prestige among the Roman upper class, and Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is written in Greek. It was not until after 200 CE that the Church in Rome produced documents in Latin, and the first Christian theologian to write in Latin was Tertullian, a North African, writing in the early 200s.

Orthodox Pentecost is celebrated in Greece seven weeks and a day (50 days) following Easter, and marks the end of the Easter cycle that began 92 days before with Orthodox Shrove Monday. This means Orthodox Pentecost usually fall in late May to mid-June in Greece, and the feast traditionally lasts for three days – on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – and with a public holiday on the Monday.

This year, in the Greek Orthodox Calendar, the Day of Pentecost was celebrated on 23 June. Pentecost is one of the Great Christian Feasts of the year, being second in importance only to Pascha or Easter. It is celebrated with much fanfare in Greece, so much so that it seems like ‘a second Easter.’

Traditionally, the icon of the Feast of Pentecost is an icon of bold colours of red and gold signifying that this is a great event. The movement of the icon is from the top to the bottom. At the top of the icon is a semicircle with rays coming from it. The rays are pointing toward the Apostles, and the tongues of fire are seen descending upon each one of them signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit.

The building in the background of the icon represents the upper room where the Disciples of Christ gathered after the Ascension. The Apostles are shown seated in a semicircle which shows the unity of the Church. Included in the group of the Apostles is Saint Paul, who, though not present with the others on the day of Pentecost, became an Apostle of the Church and the greatest missionary.

Often the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are also included holding books of the Gospel, while the other Apostles are holding scrolls that represent the teaching authority given to them by Christ.

In the centre of the icon below the Apostles, a royal figure is seen against a dark background. This is a symbolic figure, the κόσμος (cosmos), representing the people of the world living in darkness and in sin. However, this figure carries in his hands a cloth containing scrolls that represent the teaching of the Apostles. The tradition of the Church holds that the Apostles carried the message of the Gospel to all parts of the world.

In the icon of Pentecost we see the fulfilment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, sent down upon the Apostles who will teach the nations and baptise them in the name of the Holy Trinity. Here we see that the Church is brought together and sustained in unity through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, that the Spirit guides the Church in the missionary endeavour throughout the world, and that the Spirit nurtures the Body of Christ, the Church, in truth and love.

Pentecost depicted in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó, in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Wednesday 3 July 2024, Saint Thomas the Apostle):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Saint Luke’s Hospital, Nablus.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Wednesday 3 July 2024, Saint Thomas the Apostle) invites us to pray:

Creator God, grant to us, like Thomas, who have not seen, that we may also believe and confess Christ as our Lord and our God.

The Collect:

Almighty and eternal God,
who, for the firmer foundation of our faith,
allowed your holy apostle Thomas
to doubt the resurrection of your Son
till word and sight convinced him:
grant to us, who have not seen, that we also may believe
and so confess Christ as our Lord and our God;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
by the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Pentecost depicted in a fresco in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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