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Pentecost and mission

31 May 2015

Today is the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Pascha, and the feast has a dual symbolism: the Descent of the Holy Spirit, and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

pentecost_01Orthodox mission can be said to have begun on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem over nineteen centuries ago and the ikon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit is perhaps the best place to begin the study of Orthodox mission and missiology. It shows the apostles of Jesus gathered in the upper room, sitting in a semi-circle. There is an atmosphere of sober expectancy. “Stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

In the centre of the semicircle of the apostles is what looks like a window with a rounded top, vertical, though it also appears to be set in the middle of the floor, which one would normally expect to be horizontal. It seems as though the window is open onto a dark night, and in it, facing the viewer, is an old man, a king, holding a white cloth. He is looking into the upper room, but in such a position that he cannot see it, or anyone in it. He is looking directly at the viewer. This is Cosmos, the world (Ouspensky 1987:322, 323, 332).

So the ikon depicts the mission of the church, or rather the church preparing for its mission. It is to go into all the world. And the world is at the centre, the focal point, of the ikon.
Many images, verbal as well as graphic, depict the church surrounded by the world. The world is sometimes hostile, sometimes needy. But it is always “out there” and the church is “in here”. The church, we are told, must “reach out” to the poor, hungry, needy suffering world. But the ikon reverses the perspectives and shows the world inside the upper room. The church does not reach out to the world, because the world is in the middle.

LastBatA children’s novel by C.S. Lewis, The last battle, describes the last battle of the land of Narnia. The powers of evil have taken over the land, and claim to have the creator and ruler of the land, the lion Aslan, in a stable. Those who doubt their right to rule are invited to look in the stable, where they have tethered a donkey dressed in a moth-eaten lion skin. But soon it appears to the would-be rulers that something has gone wrong. Most of those sent into the stable do not come out. The only ones that do come out are the scoffers, who do not believe in Aslan, but when they emerge they are terrified out of their wits. Those who go in fearful, but not willing to betray the land to its oppressors, find that instead of the smelly stable in a forest at night, they are in a brightly lit open country.

“It seems then,” said Tirian, smiling himself, “that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory, “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy, “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world” (Lewis 1964:128).

Pentecost-icon-troparion-300x260And so it is with the ikon of Pentecost. The inside of the upper room is bigger than the outside. The disciples of Jesus withdrew into the upper room, and discovered that inside it was bigger than the whole universe. And so the old man, Cosmos, can mean many things. An older and sadder Adam, perhaps, worn out with his dominion over the creation, which itself has become worn out and ravaged by time and man. Cosmos can represent the world in darkness.
And there is the mission of the Church — reaching out by reaching in. Bringing good news to an old and weary earth.
It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and to understand mission it would be better to look at the ikon of Pentecost, and pray before it, than to try to describe it.[1]

 

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Notes & References

[1] Adapted from my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods, chapter 3.

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