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In 2024 Easter is celebrated on 5th May

 By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest

Christ Is Risen!

The Holy Resurrection of Christ, the Easter of the Lord Jesus is the main biblical, theological and liturgical celebration. On the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Christ, the Church celebrates the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. A description of this event is contained in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles: “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven, and filled the whole house where they were sitting, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1–4).

The Day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, that is, the Feast of Pentecost in the Russian Church, as well as in those local Orthodox churches that are related to it in language and history, is often called the Day of the Holy Trinity. In 2024, Easter is celebrated on 5th May. That is why Pentecost is also celebrated unusually late. This year it falls on 23 rd June.

Within the framework of one single year, several different times, filled with own theological meaning, coexist in the Church. So, the new year, as a principle of counting time, begins on September 1 (14). But this day does not in any way affect the structure of the worship and the order of Scripture readings during the liturgy.

Victor Vasnetsov. The Resurrection of Christ (The Descent into Hell). 1905

After all, the reading of Scripture during worship depends on Pentecost. It is from this day that it begins anew every year. Then the sequence of eleven Sunday morning gospel readings begins, as well as the alternation of eight tones. This period lasts exactly 33 Sundays and ends with the beginning of the preparatory Sundays of Great Lent.

It is important that, according to many ancient interpreters, Jesus’ earthly life lasted thirty-three years. In many details, Orthodox worship is characterised by special, often invisible symbolism.

Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, is the culmination of Holy Pascha. The countdown from Pentecost is very important, since with its help the days of the whole year are read in the light of the event of the Resurrection of Christ. It is almost not considered by believers, which is very regrettable.

It forms a new logic of time, in which each Sunday sets a theme for the coming week for reflection on all the deeds and words of the Saviour in the form in which the evangelists and apostles preserved them for believers after verifying His Resurrection. In this theological sense, the entire New Testament is a grand narrative of the appearance of the Risen Saviour to the churches.

Because of the cause-and-effect relationship between Easter and Pentecost, Scripture is called inspired. This means that the Holy Spirit Himself became the author of the sacred texts, that is, the guarantor of the consistency of the narrative with history and the guarantor of their authenticity.

“The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything that I have told you,” Jesus said about this (John 14:26). Let us remember that the word Comforter from the Gospel, in the biblical understanding, also means “intercessor”, “helper”, “advocate”. The Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the authenticity of Scripture. He is the voice of its living words, that wind and that breath in which, according to the word of the prophet Elijah, there is God Himself (cf. 1 Kings 19:12).

Holy 40 Days and Holy Week – Great Lent consists of these two parts and thus lasts seven weeks. Lent and Easter time – these periods are equal in number of days. In essence, this creates a direct analogy between two times lasting 50 days. These are the “Two Pentecosts” – one of which is solemn, the other is repentant. The semantics of both periods is colossal; its interpretation creates a special theology of the liturgical calendar.

Let us remind us that fifty days must pass from Forgiveness Sunday to Easter. It turns out that Great Lent is a Pentecost of asceticism and remembrance dedicated to God. It consists of two parts. The first part is the Holy 40 Days of fasting and repentance, the second part is the Holy Week of remembrance of Christ’s Passion. In the liturgical year, Great Lent, as a time, is not alone. It has a time companion with which it comes into contact on Easter. This is the period from Easter to Pentecost, lasting exactly seven weeks and one day. Like forty days, fifty is a special, sacred, biblical number.

If the life and story of Jesus had ended with death on the Cross, it would have been the greatest triumph of the forces of evil in history. But God prepared His answer to the death on the Cross of the Messiah and SaviourHe sent. This answer is unexpected and paradoxical. It was not “programmed”, it did not happen according to some pre-known plan. “God raised up His Son Jesus, and sent Him to you first to bless you, turning everyone from your evil deeds,” preached the Apostle Peter after the event of Pentecost (Acts 3:26).

In the development of God’s saving plan according to the predestination of His grace, the Cross became the topos of the foundation of divine gifts. Therefore, the reflection of the Church, as a Society of Believers and a Community of Interpreters, on the Resurrection and Pentecost has always been inextricably linked with the theology of the sign of the Cross.

There is a belief that, unlike Western Christianity, which is focused on the Cross, Passion and death of Christ, Eastern Christianity has always been a religion of joy, celebration and Resurrection. However, this is not quite true. After all, the Cross undoubtedly resides in the Holy of Holies of Eastern Orthodoxy.

If we try to highlight the difference between Eastern Christianity and Western Christianity in relation to the Cross of Christ, then, perhaps, it would be more correct to say that in each individual era the perception of the Cross changed, both in Western and Eastern Christianity. And yet, it is generally accepted that Orthodoxy perceives the Cross as a sign of Victory. The triumph of the Risen One over the devil, hell and death, accomplished on the Cross. Western Christianity, when looking at the Holy Cross, is more characteristic of what can be called the “theology of Christological sorrow”.

It is important to know that the Cross of Christ is not mentioned in the Nicene Creed of 325. The main theological term of this document, which preceded the Creed that we use, was the word about the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father.

“We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ <…>, who suffered and rose from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven and is coming to judge the living and the dead,” the text says. It is obvious that the death penalty by crucifixion was still practiced in the Roman Empire at that time. Unlike the Sacraments, which only those who belonged to the Church could know in detail, the Creed belonged to the sphere of public confession, and therefore the compilers of this original ancient text chose not to mention the cross. Time had to pass for proper understanding.

Tradition identifies the Nicene-Constantinople Creed with the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381. However, researchers tell us that it was first read at the meetings of the Forth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon, that is, seventy years later. Over time, it was this Creed that became the most important confession, a kind of criterion for belonging to historical Christianity. It not only says that the Lord Jesus was crucified, but it emphasises that He was crucified “for our sake and for our salvation.”

At the same time, the Cross “appears” in the Creed not alone but accompanied by a historical character. He was one of the very few people in history who saw the Cross of Christ with his own eyes. Moreover, he himself ordered its construction. And he wrote a judgment on it: “Pilate also wrote the inscription and placed it on the cross. It was written: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19). No other court documents from Jesus’ trial survive. It is important to know about the prophetic and, at the same time, legal nature of Pilate’s inscription on the Cross.

Indeed, the pagan Pontius Pilate is the only person, besides the Lord Jesus Himself and the Virgin Mary, whom the Creed mentions by name. Neither John the Baptist nor any of the Apostles or Prophets is mentioned by name in the Symbol. For some reason, it absorbed all the attention intended for people by the compilers of the text. “I believe in the Lord Jesus <…> crucified for us under Pontius Pilate.”

Why does the Creed talk about Pilate? If for reasons of chronology, then for this it would be enough to mention the emperor Tiberius himself (14–37), during whose reign Christ was crucified. But, unlike Pilate, Tiberius not only did not speak with Jesus, did not judge Him and did not sentence Him to death, but, most likely, did not know about his existence at all. Obviously, Pilate is not mentioned in the Symbol for chronology. His name in the Creed is a conscious decision of the compilers. Pilate was the legitimate representative of the Roman Empire who sentenced Jesus to death. Pilate spoke to Jesus.

Finally, he demanded a confession of faith from Jesus. “Pilate said to Him: What is truth?” (John 18:38). But it is impossible to hear a confession of faith if you do not believe yourself.

With his criminal decision, which began with the refusal to make any decision in the gesture of washing his hands (Matt. 27:24), he became an actor in the most important event in history. Through this involvement, a situation of dialogue was created between the Empire and Christ, which will continue in dialogue, communication, communion and opposition between the Church and the State, as the “legal successors” of Jesus Crucified and the organism that crucified him.

Thus, the name of Pilate in the Creed is a political decision of the Church to testify to its parity, equality, opposition, interaction, dialogue with the Empire. In the language of theology, this is expressed by the concept of “universality.” With words about the Crucifixion under Pilate, the Church consciously opposed itself to the political and state world, represented by the one who then specifically represented the Empire before Jesus Christ.

The Church perceived itself as a specific counterpart to the Empire, which until the end of time would conduct a dialogue with the Empire, preach to the people of the Empire. If we follow the logic of Eusebius of Caesarea (265–339), whom the Orthodox tradition not by chance considers “the father of church history,” the Church was to live with the Empire forever.

“Caesar announced to all people the banner of salvation <…>, in the midst of the royal city he erected the sacred symbol of the Cross against the enemies and inscribed firmly and indelibly that this sign of salvation is the guardian of the Roman Land and the entire Empire,” he wrote in his Praise to Constantine (1, 40).

But the Empire and the State will end. The Lord Jesus will return at the end of history, and His Kingdom, according to the Symbol, “will have no end.” Many interpreters preferred not to remember this.

Let’s return to Pilate. The Church Slavonic text of the Creed literally calls the procurator of Judea “Pontian Pilate”. Of course, this is wrong. After all, Pilate’s name was “Pontius”. The word Pilate in this case is either a nickname or an addition to the main name. Perhaps it means “spear”, “dart”. There is an assumption that “pilate” may mean a fur hat. If this is so, such a nickname for the man by whose order the crown of thorns was placed on the head of Jesus becomes a tragic grotesque. “Then Jesus came out wearing a crown of thorns and a scarlet robe. And Pilate said to them, “Behold, a man!” (John 20:5).

In the last chapters of the Gospel of John, it seems that the author of this sacred text deliberately contrasts Pilate with the Jews. Pilate sought to save Jesus; the Jews demanded to kill Him. This opposition is a consequence of a special theological design, but from the historical point of view, it most likely represents an anachronism.

After all, the Lord Himself never opposed Himself to His people. However, with the beginning of the apostolic preaching after Pentecost, Christianity and Judaism began to separate. According to the Apostle Paul, who discusses this in his Epistle to the Romans, chapters 9–11, such mutual alienation was part of the divine plan. After all, if the whole of Israel had believed in Christ, then Christianity would not have become universal, and the preaching of the good news would not have been addressed to the pagans. Such was the predestination of the saints; such was the method of grace. However, it is an axiom of the biblical understanding of the Church that it is forever composed of Jews and Gentiles.

“We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks,” writes Paul (1 Cor. 1:23). It is extremely interesting that in the first centuries of Christianity, Pontius Pilate, who crucified Jesus, seemed to be able to get away with the crime he committed. Paradoxically and formally contrary to historical truth, the first Christian generations had a very positive attitude towards Pilate. It seemed that this attitude would last forever.

The first centuries of Christianity continued the “apology of Pilate.” In the works of the father of the Latin theological tradition, the great Carthaginian theologian Tertullian (160–240), we find paradoxical evidence that Pilate’s washing of hands symbolises baptism.

Descent of the Holy Spirit. Icon from the Holy Spirit Church of the Novodevichy Convent, 18th century

In one of the Synaxarions of the Ethiopian Church, Pilate was mentioned among the saints, with a feast day of 19th June. Among the monuments of this ancient Eastern Church, we find the “Martyrdom of Pilate”, and even the “Anaphora”, that is, the Eucharistic Prayer, apparently associated with his name… Under the name of Claudia Procula, a martyr now revered in our liturgical calendar, most likely “hides” the “last dreamer” of the New Testament (Matthew 27:19) – the wife of the Roman procurator of Judea.

“Pilate, seeing that nothing was helping, but the confusion was increasing, took water and washed his hands before the people, and said: I am innocent of the blood of this Righteous One; look at you,” it is written in the Gospel (Matthew 27:24). These words should be memorised so that we never repeat them in practice. Indeed, Pilate managed to “keep his hands washed” until the turn of the first and second millennia.

Then, as a result of the struggle of the Roman bishops for emancipation from secular rulers, as well as the dispute over investiture, Pilate, in the perception of the Church, was finally “revealed.” He became what he really was: a cynic who had lost the taste for truth.

In the 21st century, the gospel image of Pontius Pilate has proven its amazing immortal vitality. Today, in Pilate and his gesture of washing of hands – this prototype of the pandemic rules introduced everywhere – we see the image of a modern democratic ruler. He deliberately goes into the shadows and “transfers” the right to make decisions to the people. Thus, but only for a while, the “eternal Pilate” again manages to relieve himself of responsibility before the court of history.

Christianity is not called upon to Christianise the Empire, but to profess faith in the One Lord Jesus Christ. “He is the only Lawgiver and Judge who can save or destroy,” writes the Apostle James (James 4:12). “Jesus Christ testified before Pontius Pilate with a good confession,” Paul says (1 Tim. 6:13). Christianity is called upon to Christianise not the Empire, but the whole world. In fact, this is what the pagan Roman authorities quite rightly and shrewdly accused the first Christians of.

The rejection of this messianic conviction, or, better, forgetting about it, led to the belief that the Christian empire became the main value for Christians themselves. “For the mystery of iniquity is already at work, but it will not be completed until the one who now restrains is taken out of the way. And then the wicked one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill” (2 Thess. 2:7–8). The ambiguous figure of “Katechon”, that is, literally, the retarder of the Second Coming, was identified with the Empire. But according to Paul, the removal of the “one who restrains” will reveal the wicked one, whom the Lord Jesus will kill “with the breath of His mouth” and “destroy by the appearance of His Coming” (8).

“Wherever the power of thought rushes, whether to the East, the West, to Earth, or to Heaven itself, everywhere it sees the Blessed Caesar, inseparable from his Kingdom. His children rule over the earth. Like new stars, they illuminate the earth with the light of their father. He lives in them with his power, multiplying it in their succession, and ruling the entire Universe even more perfectly than before,” wrote Eusebius of Caesarea in his Praise to Constantine. Belief in the One Empire necessarily led to the denial of the authenticity and orthodoxy of the states and churches that were outside its borders.

By the time of Pilate’s “exposure” at the end of the first millennium of Christian history, a false dogmatic belief had arisen that there could only be one Orthodox Empire. Moreover, the formulation “the official confession of the Empire” actually became one of the key definitions of Orthodoxy. It turns out that, with the division of the Empire into East and West, the division of the church into Orthodox and Catholic was bound to happen.

But let us return to the theme of the “Two Pentecosts”. The first Sunday of Great Lent is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy. This celebration owes its origin to the Local Council of the Church of Constantinople in 843, at which the veneration of icons was restored in the Byzantine Empire. The dogma of the veneration of icons was established at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 in the city of Nicaea. It is important to remember that the Triumph of Orthodoxy has a “twin holiday” in the period from Easter to Pentecost.

After all, a week before the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, the Memory of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council is celebrated. At this Council, which also took place in Nicaea, the main dogmatic truth of Christianity was proclaimed – the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son of God with God the Father. It is important that the basis for the proportion of the temporal distance of celebrations during both periods is always Easter Day.

An Ecumenical Council is a meeting of the episcopate of the Roman Empire, and some bishops from outside it, convened and authorised by the emperor. This is one of the formal definitions of this important event in the life and history of the Church. However, in Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Councils, from the First to the Last, with a total of 7, are something much more.

Ecumenical Councils are unique milestones in the history of salvation, when the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of the Council Fathers, proclaimed the dogmas by which the Church lives in history. A characteristic feature of the Orthodox tradition is the fact that the memory of the Ecumenical Councils, each individually or all together, as well as the first six together, is celebrated during divine services throughout the year. This fact attracted the attention of researchers back in the 19th century. In modern times, the phrase “Church of the Seven Councils” has become one of the self-definitions of Orthodoxy.

It is significant that during the period of 100 Holy Days – the “Two Pentecosts”, penitential and solemn – the memory of the First and Seventh Ecumenical Councils is celebrated on the last and first Sunday of this most important period of the liturgical year, respectively.

Obviously, if such a sequence of times and memories was calculated by the holy fathers and compilers of liturgical sequences, then one must be surprised at its thoughtfulness. If it arose spontaneously, then we must reverently recognise how grace itself determines the times and seasons in serving God in Spirit and Truth (cf. John 4:23–24). These are the moments of Orthodox theology of calendar time.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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