by Archpriest Boris Stark
It symbolizes the soul, which blossoms and turns green after its winter sleep because the grace of God has touched it.
Since ancient times, there is a pious tradition to decorate churches on the day of Pentecost with greenery – leaves, flowers, birch branches and so on.
What is the origin of this tradition? Many people ask this question.
I think there are two reasons for it: the first reason is church-historical, while the second one is symbolic.
From the historical viewpoint, I believe, this branches remind us about the Mamre oak-wood: there was the oak under which the Lord, the Holy Trinity, appeared to Abraham in the shape of three angels.* We can see this episode in the icons that are lying on the analogion on this feast day.
Besides, the day of the Jewish Old Testament Pentecost, on which the Holy Spirit descended to the apostles, was the day of commemoration of the 50th day after the exodus out of Egypt. On the 50th day they came to Mount Sinai, where the Lord gave Moses the tablets with the ten commandments, which serve us as the guideline in our life until now. It was the time of spring, and the whole mountain was covers with blooming flowers and trees. So, maybe this is why in the ancient Church there was a tradition to decorate homes and churches with greenery – people imagined as if they were on mount Sinai with Moses again.
There is no doubt that when the disciples gathered on the day of Pentecost, their chamber was also covered with greenery. In remembrance of this, we decorate our churches today and hold flowers in our hands.
However, there is also a symbolical meaning.
It symbolizes the soul, which blossoms and turns green after its winter sleep because the grace of God has touched it. In winter, there were only bald branches, but the spring came and turned them green, flowers and leaves appeared. There was winter in our heart, but then the grace of the Holy Spirit touched us, and our heart became alive.
A branch is fresh only when it grows on the tree. If it is cut from the tree, it will dry out in several days. The same concerns our soul: until it holds on to the stem, to the vine to which it is grafted, it remains alive and blossoms. Should it separate from this vine, it will dry out, too. The Lord told us:
“I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).
If the soul separates from its Vine, it begin to dry out just like a branch. This is why let us strive to be with God.
Let us always try to be with our Vine, which fills our hearts with the life-giving juice, blessing rays of the Divine light, and the grace of the Holy Spirit. On this feast day we should pray to God even more sincerely and ask Him that He does not abandon us and does not deprive us of this grace that was given to us at the moment of our baptism, that we receive thorough the sacraments of the Holy Church and from which we often distance ourselves because of our sins.
* Editor’s note: The Holy Trinity did not appear to Abraham under the Oak of Mamre. This is a common misconception. Yahweh/the Pre-Incarnate Christ/the Eternal Word appeared to Abraham, accompanied by two angels, typologically representing the Holy Trinity. It is Christ who appeared to Abraham.