This feast is observed on the 25th day of our 50 day Paschal season: the actual mid-point of this observance. It serves to turn our minds towards the climax of these fifty days, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. As the highpoint of the Lord’s presence in our midst was His death and resurrection, its climax was the event which brought us to share in His resurrection life: the coming of the Spirit upon mankind in the Church. In the words attributed to St Athanasius, “God became man so that we might receive the Holy Spirit.”
The Source of Living WaterIn Jn 7:14-30, read at the Liturgy on this feast, we hear how Jesus taught in the temple “about the middle of the feast” of Tabernacles (v. 14) and confronted the Jewish leaders who challenged Him. This event may have prompted the choice of this day to celebrate His teachings. The heart of His teaching on this occasion, however, would only come as the feast was concluding: “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified”(John 7:37-39).
In this passage Christ proclaims – and on this feast we celebrate – several connected aspects of the divine plan for our salvation:
– “Rivers of living water” are meant to flow from the hearts of those who believe in Christ.
– This would happen when believers receive the Spirit.
– This would only take place when Jesus was “glorified.”
In the theology of St John’s Gospel the idea of “exaltation” or “glorification” is used to describe Christ’s death and resurrection. This is drawn from Christ’s words at Bethany predicting His passion: “The hour is come, that the Son of Man should be glorified” (John 12:23). What would appear to be His humiliation would actually be His glorification. This truth is proclaimed in our icons of the crucifixion where the charge against Christ dictated by Pilate (“King of the Jews”) is replaced by the proclamation “The King of Glory.”
The image of “living [that is, running] water” used to describe the power of the Holy Spirit and the Lord as its source is drawn from the prophecy of Jeremiah: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You shall be put to shame…because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 17:13). This image was still powerful in the minds of early Christians who thus preferred that baptism be given in running (“living”) water.
Christ is proclaimed as the Source of this living water in the troparion of the feast: “At the middle point of this festive season give my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of true worship, for You called out to all men, ‘Whoever is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.’ O Christ God, Fountain of life, glory to You!”
Christ as the Source of living water is a central theme in the Gospel of John which we read on three Sundays in the Paschal season. Christ heals the paralyzed man at the Pool of Bethesda (see John 5:1-15). He heals the blind man at the pool of Siloam (see John 9:1-38). He tells the Samaritan woman, “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14). All these passages, as well as the reading on Mid-Pentecost, would have been particularly meaningful to those newly baptized in living water at Pascha.
Conduits of the SpiritChrist’s words, “He who believes in Me… out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38) point to another important element in His teaching. Believers are not meant to receive the Holy Spirit as if they were closed vessels. Rather they are meant to be channels by which the grace of the Spirit touches others. Thus when St Seraphim of Sarov showed Nicholas Motovilov what happens when a person acquires the Holy Spirit, he insisted, “This is not given to you alone but through you it is for the whole world!” If a believer has truly received the Holy Spirit, others are affected. As St Seraphim phrased it, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”
Icon of the FeastThe icon of this feast shown here depicts the Gospel scene of the adult Christ teaching in the temple during the Jewish festival. Often, however, the icon venerated on Mid-Pentecost depicts the twelve year old Jesus “in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46), indicating that at all times and in every way Christ is the Source of wisdom, the Illuminator of our souls.
Development of This FeastWe have no documented witness to the origins of this feast, but it was widely known by the fifth century. The Bishop of Ravenna, Peter Chrysologus (c. 380-c. 450), called it a divine festival from the tradition of the apostolic fathers. It existed in the time of St. John Chrysostom and its observance can be documented in sixth century Antioch and seventh century Jerusalem. Hymns for this feast were written by Ss Elias, Patriarch of Jerusalem from 494 to 513, Anatolius, Patriarch of Constantinople (449-458), Andrew of Crete (seventh century) John of Damascus (eighth century) and Theophan the Confessor (ninth century).
Today this feast is only observed in Byzantine Churches, but this was not always so. Peter Chrysologus, quoted above, was a Western bishop and the feast was observed in the Ambrosian rite and other Western usages.
In some Churches the Lesser Blessing of Waters is conducted on this feast, preferably at a river or stream (“living water”) and the fields and gardens are then blessed as well.