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Shavuot through the Lens of Orthodoxy

In a few days, it will be the Feast of Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks. It is celebrated on the 6th day of the Jewish month of Sivan. In the diaspora, it is a two-day feast but in Israel it is celebrated only one day. 

Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals where the Jews would travel to Solomon’s Temple in its observance pursuant to the Torah. Keep a feast to Me three times in the year…three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God (Ex 23:14, 17). 

The Feast commemorates the conclusion of the counting of the Omer which is an ancient Israeli unit of dry measure. Shavuot is a harvest feast, where for 50 days the Jews would bring sheaves of barley to the Temple. It is a joyous occasion, giving thanks for the crops, thus, the fruits that God has provided. 

You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end (Ex 34:22). 

The counting of the seven weeks begins on the 2nd day of Passover (16th Nisan) or 50 days, starting from the first day of Passover (15th Nisan).

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the Lord, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And you shall offer on that day, when you wave the sheaf, a male lamb of the first year, without blemish, as a burnt offering to the Lord (Lev 23:10-13).

After the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 70 AD, the significance of Shavuot changed. The emphasis shifted from a harvest feast to a commemoration for the giving of God’s Law, the Torah. The Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai by God Himself.  

Especially concerning the day you stood before the Lord your God in Horeb, when the Lord said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.’ Then you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the midst of heaven, with darkness, cloud, and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might observe them in the land which you cross over to possess (Deut 4:10-14).

Passover indeed memorializes the physical liberation from bondage in Egypt, yet, Shavuot is a spiritual redemption, making the physical liberation complete. In Hebrew, Shavuot means Atzeret, translated as completion or fulfillment. The Jews gained their freedom from captivity in Egypt in order to receive God's Law, the Torah.

For us, Orthodox Christians, Shavuot parallels Pentecost. It too is called the Feast of Weeks (7 x 7) with an extra day to make 50, having an eschatological dimension to it. Pentecost refers to the life to come in the Kingdom of Heaven.  

However, the date of Pentecost is independent to that of Shavuot. The fifty days are counted from the date of Pascha. The Orthodox Calendar hinges upon Pentecost with each successive Sunday numbered from its distance (Ex: 2nd Sunday or 3rd Sunday after Pentecost). 

The divine work of redemption has been completed with the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Apostles, simple fisherman, were ordained to preach God's word throughout the world. Truly, Pascha and Pentecost are united as a completion of one purpose: the redemption of mankind. Pentecost is the final feast of the great mystery and dispensation of God's incarnation. Christ redeems the crown of creation, mankind, with His Crucifixion and Resurrection. He ascends to the Father and ten days later, sends us the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, fulfilling His promise.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you… However when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth (Jn 16: 7,13).

Thus, the Son must ascend for the Spirit to descend. Now that the redemptive work of Christ is complete, the Holy Spirit will guide the Apostles who are the first hierarchs, to preach the Gospel throughout the world. 

It is a tradition for the Jews to hug the Torah tightly to their hearts on Shavuot, as an expression of love and gratitude for its salvific power. Yet, as St Paul said: the Law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Gal 3:24-35). 

The Law was temporary and incomplete, in anticipation for the Coming of the Lord in His Incarnation. For Christ is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

As we await our own Feast of Weeks, Pentecost, let us in awe and faith, exclaim from our hearts: O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fills all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain and save our souls, O gracious Lord.

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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