It is a commonplace in some circles to celebrate Pentecost as the Church’s “Birthday.” It is well-intentioned, perhaps even true in some sense, but tends to render the Church as something it is not. St. Paul calls the Church the “pillar and ground of truth.” The sort of institutional concept that would mark some date in 33 AD as a founding date (like the founding of Rome or Coca-Cola), would make St. Paul’s description beyond absurd. Paul gave ceaseless effort to the establishing of Christian communities, preaching, teaching, correcting, admonishing, encouraging, etc. The communities described in his letters would seem a very shaky thing to be described as the pillar and ground of anything. And yet, there it is. Indeed, it is right to say that the Church “cannot be shaken.”
I share a small passage from St. Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia’s book, Wounded by Love. Here, the depth of the Scripture is made clear:
The Church is without beginning, without end and eternal, just as the Triune God, her founder, is without beginning, without end and eternal. She is uncreated just as God is uncreated. She existed before the ages, before the angels, before the creation of the world – before the foundation of the world as the Apostle Paul says. She is a divine institution and in her dwells the whole fullness of divinity. She is an expression of the richly varied wisdom of God. She is the mystery of mysteries. She was concealed and was revealed in the last of times. The Church remains unshaken because she is rooted in the love and wise providence of God.
The three persons of the Holy Trinity constitute the eternal Church.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that in the Russian tradition, the Day of Pentecost is celebrated as Troitsa (Троица), the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The icon most associated with that feast is the Hospitality of Abraham, which depicts the visit of the three angels described in Genesis 18.
The Church is the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose, “that He might gather together in one, all things in Christ Jesus.” It is the place of union between heaven and earth, our union with God. It is our common life with God that is referenced when we say “Church.”
Our misunderstanding in all of this is driven by wrong-headed accounts of salvation. We were created for union with God. It’s for this purpose that we were created in His image and likeness. What is termed the “Fall” is a deviation from that single purpose, while salvation is the restoration of our true life. St. Paul describes this:
For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will… (Eph. 1:9-11)
In place of this Biblical vision of salvation has been erected a lightly Christianized version of a pagan afterlife. Christ speaks of “eternal life,” and we falsely hear “a life without end.” “Eternal life” is the life of God Himself, not a mere extension of our created existence. In Holy Baptism, we receive a new mode of existence, not just a promise of an afterlife. That mode of existence is life-in-communion with God. We not only have life-in-communion with God, we become life-in-communion with God. St. Paul describes this as the “new man.”
Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, (Col. 3:2-10)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Cor. 5:17)
This “new” does not mean “getting a fresh start.” It means something that did not exist before. It is not a repair of the old, but the creation of a new – and this new is “according to the image of Him who created him.”
There are many cultural and historical forces that have transformed Christian understanding from this life-as-a-new-creation into a path to a pleasant afterlife. Our own fear of death is among the greatest culprits. When the death of the body becomes our dominant fear, the answer we seek is something that makes it not so bad. If I die and then go to heaven, then my fear is relieved. Sadly, we do not fear this present life, even though it is life-in-death and is passing away.
Much of what passes for a Christian life these days consists of trying to improve the behavior of our present existence. We want to be better persons and contribute to a better world. As commendable as this is (surely better than being a worse person and poisoning the world), it is not the point of our faith. This is what often sets saints apart from other Christians. It is not that saints are like us, only better. They are not like us. They are like God, having taken up a new mode of existence that transcends (and transforms) the world.
This new mode of existence is the manifestation in us of the very life of the Holy Trinity. That life is consistently described in the New Testament as “love.” We have diminished the meaning of this word, in which it becomes either a set of emotions or actions of kindness. Again, these are not bad things, but they are not the thing. In Christ, we see love as the actual mode of existence.
In the encounter with the woman at the well, Christ’s disciples are concerned that He has had nothing to eat. He says:
But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. (Jn. 4:32-34)
“Doing the will of the Father” is, in John’s gospel, a definition of love. It is more than a good action; it is able to sustain body and soul. It is the life of the age to come made manifest in human form.
“He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (Jn. 14:21)
It is this life of Divine love, the life of the Holy Trinity, that is given to us as the new mode of our existence in Christ. His commandments, rightly kept, become the pathway and manifestation of this love and its realization in our lives. And this is the life of the Church, its very heart and reality. It is this that prevails against the gates of hell and stands as the pillar and ground of truth.
It can have no birthday.