“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. . .”*
The Pentecost feast-day reading from Acts (2:1-21) is absolutely galvanized with spiritual energy, isn’t it? It radiates with the brightness of faith coming into being in an extraordinary mystical experience including the whole community gathered in prayer; so that, in the words of Romanos’ Kontakion for Pentecost: “they glorified the All-Holy Spirit” (E. Lash, trans. 1995, 207). This abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit, revealed to us in Scripture, is a foundational treasure of Orthodox Christianity. It is the Holy Spirit who is leading us through the Liturgy, who gave courage to the early men and women martyrs, who guided the Ecumenical Councils, and who defined the Canon of Holy Scripture.
We are fortunate that the Acts of the Apostles was crafted so soon after the events it describes. While it is a story involving a whole panorama of remembered characters and beloved episodes contributing to the seeding and growth of the Primitive Church, it is the action of God—the living divinity of God we know as the Holy Spirit—which is most urgently, most excellently portrayed here. “It is no exaggeration to conclude that Early Christians looked upon the Holy Spirit as the chief external witness to the presence of Christ’s reign” (J.T. Koenig, Charismata: God’s Gifts for God’s People, 1978, 73). In fact, Acts might better be titled “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit.”
After the Resurrection of Christ, we witness Him appearing eleven times to his disciples. His purpose is only one: to assist them in their belief and to convince them about the fact of the Resurrection. It is important to understand what Christ aimed for by appearing to his disciples, because it confirms the fact that belief in the Resurrection of the dead does not constitute a matter of intellectual acceptance. The Resurrection cannot be understood by reason alone, but is revealed in the Holy Spirit to those who sincerely seek Christ.
It is not a matter of coincidence that people nowadays accept that Christ’s teaching is of value and importance, but they find it extremely difficult to believe that He was resurrected from the dead. If it was so difficult for His disciples—i.e. the persons who have lived with Him, heard his divine teaching and experienced His miracles (see Lk. 24:11; Mt. 28:17)—to believe in the Resurrection, imagine how difficult it is for all of us, the modern believers; for our faith is not strong and solid but weak. Faith, however, is not just a human question. Above all, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a revelation of God to humankind.
Speaking about human rights in Orthodoxy, we must clearly understand why we need this discourse and how it will influence theology and religious consciousness. In my opinion, it has two primary purposes: protection of the weak and inclusion. Today, the debate about human rights increasingly affects Orthodox political theology and anthropology but does not affect ecclesiology. Clerical power structures colonized the Orthodox ecclesiological consciousness and control the vision of the church norm, church structure, and the church’s boundaries. Incorporation into the church rests in the hands of a privileged group and depends on that group’s arbitrary power, which impedes the development of inclusion.
Clericocentricity is a distinctive feature of most ecclesiologies. Through them, the rest of the church views clerics as a chosen part of the church people, whose priesthood gives them advantages not only of a practical nature but also, in some interpretations, of an ontological nature (ordination changes the nature of a person). Ecclesiologies describe the church so that clerical structures inevitably become their focal points and replace the church’s image. When we talk about the church in everyday life, we immediately imagine a clergyman, worship, or church building. These ecclesiologies contain the message that if a person belongs to the right jurisdiction, participates rightly in the right style of worship and sacraments, follows the right practices, and correlates his faith with Orthodoxy—the content of which is also controlled by the clerics—then he will be saved. Such ecclesiological concepts as schism, heresy, Eucharistic communion, etc., become instruments of power control. Even the place of women in the church is discussed mainly in a clerical manner as the topic of female priesthood.
By now, it would almost be commonplace to observe that the COVID pandemic has created (or perhaps, rather, it has apocalyptically exposed) a cultural rift within the contemporary Orthodox Christian community. As a pastor, I have experienced this division firsthand, and I know of other clergy who have lost parishioners as a result of it.
On the one side stand those who have wholeheartedly embraced government-sanctioned restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of COVID. They accept the closure of churches as a matter of course, and once gatherings are permitted, they welcome mitigation strategies such as multiple spoons for receiving communion. On the extreme end, these folks tend to get anxious when they observe any failure to comply with the letter of the health regulations.
On the other side of the rift are those who resist attempts to restrict or shut down access to in-person Church services. They view attendance at the services as an unavoidable risk, inherent to Christian faith. The most extreme of these folks accuse other Christians of moral capitulation or worse, while yearning for the days of the early Church when Christians supposedly took all manner of risks to gather for the Eucharistic liturgy.