St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of Pentecost

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, June 3, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Pentecost is a theophany, a revelation of God I think best compared to other famous theophanies like Moses on Mt. Sinai or the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.  Witnesses of these events try hard to describe them, but words fail, so there is a special type of dramatic, stylized language used in Holy Scripture using symbols.

Wind and divine fire are common because both are symbols of wild, uncontrollable power.  In the great biblical theophanies we see God as He is, unbounded, wild, uncontrollable, and free. The experience leaves witnesses staggering and confused like the apostles and disciples who were accused on this day of being drunk. 

Theophanies are sensory-overload events for God is greater than the senses. In them God is revealed as He is, not as we want or believe him to be.  At such times what we think, our theologies, myths, legends, holy traditions become irrelevant.  All of it burns away like the empty chaff that it is. Everything we hold dear melts away as what really is reveals itself and that includes our view of ourselves.

The great holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl described it like this. “What is to give light must endure burning.”  If we are to become as Jesus says we are, “the light of the world,” then all that is false and all that is true in us must submit to the flame.

Of course, the spiritual life cannot always be a grand theophany. We could not possibly bear it. Pentecost is like a surge of 10,000 volts of electricity. We are not built to contain that much power for long. We run pretty well on 110 volts most of the time.

Therefore, it comes to us in stages, as we are able to handle it. That is the meaning of the verse, “God will not give us more than we can bear.”  But the corollary of that statement is that God will also not give us less than we can bear.

Receiving the fullness of the Spirit is beyond us; it would be like pouring the seven oceans into a teacup. The teacup could not handle it. Neither could we. When the teacup breaks, it must be replaced by something larger. More space must be made for more tea.  So as we become more and more empty more space becomes available for God. But since God is infinite, we must always be expanding and becoming empty. The heart must break to grow. The space we create by letting go will always prove inadequate for deification because God is infinite. Thus, the progress of deification never ends.

Jesus once told his disciples a strange thing. “Before now you have asked nothing in my name.”  I have always wondered what that meant and have never been satisfied with the usual answers.  But the psychologist John Sanford offers a great explanation.

Before we can ask anything “in the name of Jesus” we must give up our own name; our ego must be dissolved. Without that dissolution we are only able to pray in our own names because we will always be asking for what we want, desire, and expect even, perhaps especially, when we cloak ourselves in conspicuous piety. To pray “in the name of Jesus” implies that we have given up our own name for his. “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”

What comes after Jesus says these words is the Great Example of total dissolution: the Cross. Of the Cross we must all have our own personal experience. Dean Alan Jones suggests it comes in the form of three crises: the crisis of meaning where all we hold dear comes into question; the crisis of betrayal, of being untethered, forgotten, alone; and, finally, the crisis of utter emptiness, of dereliction, the Crucifixion.  Through these stages the ego is dissolved and we begin to live as little “christs”.

As we grow we discover that our personality formations and ego structures are too small, inadequate to contain the growth in knowledge and enlightenment. The new wine bursts the old wine skins.

The coming of the Spirit points us to this essential work, to our hearts, where the truth about ourselves and God is revealed. It is here that the necessary work is done and why it was better that Jesus go away. If he had not ascended, then we would have been tempted to cling to him, as Mary Magdalene did in the Garden.  It was not the Lord’s desire that we make an idol of him. That is to hold on to old inadequate ways of perceiving Him. Instead he ascended and sent the Holy Spirit so that we would not be tempted to cling to exterior forms that must pass away as they all do, but rather turn to the Christ who lives within the heart, where the Holy Trinity dwells. “Christ in you,” St. Paul exclaimed, “the hope of glory.”

In the coming of the Holy Spirit the prophecy of our Lord to the Samaritan Woman comes true, “There is a time coming when worshippers will no longer worship in Jerusalem or on this mountain, but rather in spirit and in truth.”

Here is a beautiful and cogent quote from the great psychologist Carl Jung. “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.”

The fire of the Holy Spirit is a cleansing and purifying fire.  To open our hearts to receive it is to accept the martyric death of the false self, a death to all that we have built and called “ourselves” or rather, a transformation so great that we must endure the periodic shedding of our egoic exoskeletons to make way for more and more of the Truth.

It is in the heart that Christ dwells and it is within that the Holy Spirit directs us.