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.

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you for giving me another way to view Pentecost. I had just been talking to my husband and suggesting that we wear something red tomorrow—not that it’s necessary. Now I’m thinking green! Our faith is so rich.

  2. Peter T. says

    And here I was expecting you to make a connection with the willows where we hung our harps before Lent :-)

  3. Daniel W says

    What kinds of trees were they? How were they set up? Were they potted or put into stands? I’m really fascinated by this. Do you have any photos?

  4. davidperi says

    These beautiful birch trees can be tapped for good, clear, sweet tasting water. Drill a hole in the tree, place a small drain pipe so the water can go into a pail., bottle it and put in the frig. My wife´s sister does it in the spring and many Finns in eastern Finland do it. It tastes good.

  5. Sibyl says

    And… the harvest continues on until Succoth, the feast of booths, and then the frost and snow.

  6. says

    I really love this distinguishing feature of Russian Orthodoxy — I’ve never seen trees in a Greek church. Other Russian parishes, I’ve noticed, don’t use actual trees, but tree branches, or even just potted plants; but real trees in church just grabs me somehow. Thanks, Father!

  7. Lucian says

    Father Stephen,

    a man struggling with cancer needs all the help and support he can get:

    Link 1 , Link 2

    email hidden; JavaScript is required

    If you could maybe write a short post about it, to draw more attention to his case, and thus raise as much funds as possible…

    Thank you, Father, and God bless.

  8. Amy Koegel-Gibbs says

    Thank you for sharing Fr. Stephen, here in Switzerland both the auffarht and the Phingston are celebrated in both the Catholic and the Protestant churches. Even being raised as a preachers kid it took me lots of thinking time to understand what the meaning of these 2 celebrations is…I didn’t learn it in the numerous sermons I was fortunate enough to hear from my earthly father. But since I have learned a bit, the 10 days between the feasts have meant alot to me. God bless you all.