And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.” But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, ”Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.” Acts 2:12-15
Have you ever wondered why the Divine Liturgy is celebrated on Sunday morning, and not on Sunday afternoon or evening? It has to do with the “Hours” of the day that we mentioned previously. Remember that the “hours” correspond to the hours of sunlight. So the first hour is sunrise, the third hour is mid-morning, the sixth hour is mid-day, the ninth hour is mid-afternoon and the twelfth hour is sunset. Now, because the hours of the sun vary based on if it is summer or winter, in modern times, we consider the first hour around 6:00 A.M., the third hour at 9:00 A.M., the sixth hour at noon, the ninth hour at 3:00 P.M. and the twelfth hour at 6:00 P.M.
In Acts 2: 15, in Peter’s address to the crowd, we know that the Pentecost event, the descent of the Holy Spirit, occurred about the third hour of the day. We know that the miracle of Pentecost was that the Holy Spirit came down on simple men and endowed them with the gift to speak the Gospel in all the languages known to man. In other words, ordinary men were given the gift to become extraordinary in their ability to proclaim the Gospel, and all of this was made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
When we celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, we bring gifts that are rather ordinary, bread and wine, and during the service, we ask for the Holy Spirit to come down, ”upon us and on the gifts here presented, and make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ, and that which is in this cup to be the precious Blood of Your Christ, changing them by Your Holy Spirit, Amen, Amen, Amen.” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, trans. by Holy Cross Seminary Press) In this sense, every celebration of the Divine Liturgy is like a little Pentecost, because not only do we call the Holy Spirit to come down upon the Gifts we are presenting, to make ordinary things into the extraordinary Body and Blood of Christ, but before we ask the Holy Spirit to consecrate our Gifts, we ask for Him to come “upon US,” to make us extraordinary as well.
The Divine Liturgy is celebrated mid-morning, between the “third” and “sixth” hours of the day (between 9:00 A.M. and noon) because this is the time of day when Pentecost happened. (There are, of course, certain exceptions to this, including prescribed Vesperal Liturgies on Christmas Eve and the Eve of Epiphany, when we are supposed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the evening. The Paschal Divine Liturgy was moved in recent years to the midnight hour. By “economia” or dispensation, Bishops of the church allow priests to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the evening on certain occasions. The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy during Lent has no consecration, no descent of the Holy Spirit, so it is held in the late afternoon or evening. The Sunday Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy observed on the Lord’s Day, with the exception of Pascha, is always offered between the third and sixth hours of the morning.)
After the Divine Liturgy in most Orthodox churches today, there will be three special prayers offered in the context of a Vespers service. (Vespers is normally celebrated in the evening hours, but because this Vespers is so important, and because the church recognizes that many people won’t come back for chis service if it were held tonight, it is appended to the morning’s Liturgy). This service is many times called, “The Vespers of the Descent of the Holy Spirit.” These three prayers offer us a glimpse into history-they recall the saving work of Christ, as well as the historical event of Pentecost. They ask the Holy Spirit to come into us with a continual infusion of His grace. They ask the Holy Spirit to help sustain us through our lives. They reference the Kingdom of Heaven, praying for loved ones who have already passed away, and asking that we be reunited with them in Heaven.
Many people think that the church is an heirloom or a relic that has become outdated and is stagnant. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The church doesn’t call on us to merely “remember” these important days of Pascha and Pentecost. It calls on us to continually live in them. We are supposed to live in the state of joy that the Apostles had at the Resurrection. We have the opportunity to be “graced” by the Holy Spirit at every Divine Liturgy. Each week we experience Pentecost anew. We not only remember it. We experience it. We ask for the Holy Spirit to descend on each of us each week and to give us the strength and the grace to be extraordinary in our lives. We do not only ask for the extraordinary to come down on the Gifts, but upon us as well.
Let us celebrate with joy this final post-festal feast, O believers; for it is the feast of Pentecost today, and the fulfillment of the promise and the appointed time. For on this day the fire of the Paraclete descended on the earth immediately, as in the form of tongues, and illumined the Disciples and made them initiates of heaven. The holy light of the Holy Spirit has appeared and illumined the world. (Kathisma, Orthros of Pentecost, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Receive the Holy Spirit (again) today!
~Father Stavros N. Akrotirianakis, THE ROAD BACK TO CHRIST: REFLECTIONS on LENT, HOLY WEEK and the RESURRECTION