What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us, because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to the Apostles and still says to us, “I have come to cast a fire on the earth!” (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire—about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world. It is about a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for the fire. Since it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.
The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit. Let’s look at all three.
I. The Portraits of the Spirit – The First Reading today (Acts 2:1-11) speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest (Psalm 50:3).
Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “Spirit.” For “spirit” refers to “breath,” and we have preserved this meaning in our word “respiration,” which means breathing. So the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).
Genesis 1:2 speaks of this saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man, not for the animals: then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
So the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam! But as we know, Adam lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.
Thus we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person, as these first Christians (120 in all) experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does CPR and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.
Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire, or in fiery terms. Moses saw God as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says, The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Ps 97:1-6). Scriptures call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29), and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10, Jer 9:7, Zec 13:9, Mal 3:3).
And so it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. And as a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
And He is also preparing us for judgment, for if God is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of our going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus we must be set afire by God’s love.
So in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him, who is a Holy Fire.
II. The Proclamation of the Spirit. – You will notice that the Spirit came upon them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no mere accident. For notice how the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says: And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
So behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds who have gathered.
Notice the transformation! Moments ago these were frightened men who gathered only in secrecy, behind locked doors. They were huddled together in fear. But now they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!
And how about us? Too many Christians are silent, dominated by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or not being popular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at, or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians are able to gather in the “upper room” of the parish and be active, even be leaders. But once outside the “upper room” they slip into “undercover mode.” They become “secret agent” Christians.
Well the Holy Spirit wants to change that, and to the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced his Holy Spirit, we are less “able” to keep silent. An old Gospel song says, I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me. The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, and burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing are natural to us.
Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles, for the crowd before them spoke different languages, yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent only on my own eloquence but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubtful encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes many obstacles that we might think insurmountable.
III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the Great Commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, as we have noted, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).
But how is the Lord going to do this?
Perhaps a picture will help. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title Holy Comforter. Above the high altar is the Latin inscription Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See photo, above right, of our high altar.)
The walls of my parish Church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish Red and upon this great canvas are also painted depictions of the lives of 20 saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) And above the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.
THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not “magic fairy dust”; it is in the fiery transformation of every Christian, going forth into the world to bring light and warmth to a dark and cold world. THIS is how the Lord casts fire on earth; THIS is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth: in the lives of saints, and, if you are prepared to accept it, in YOU.
In the end, the Great Commission (Matt 28) is “standing order No. 1.” No matter what else we do, we are supposed to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. We as individual Christians are a disgrace, and not worthy of the name, if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth, but only through us. The spread of the Gospel has been placed in your hands—scary, isn’t it?
Beginning two years ago, my own parish, after a year of training, stepped out into our neighborhood and went from door to door as well as into the local park. We announced Jesus Christ and invited people to discover Him in our parish and in the Sacraments. We were in the local park and the market just last week doing “sidewalk evangelization.”
Before we count even a single convert, this is already success, because we are obeying Jesus Christ, who said, simply, “Go!” “Go make disciples.” And, truth be told, we ARE seeing the results in my parish. Our Sunday attendance has grown from about 450 to 520, roughly a 15% increase. We are growing, and our attendance—while average for a downtown city parish—is going in the right direction. God never fails. God is faithful.
Spread the news: it works if you work it, so work it because God is worth it. Go make disciples. Ignore what the pollsters tell you about a declining Church and let the Lord cast a fire on the earth through you! Fires have a way of spreading! Why not start one today? The Spirit of God will not disappoint.
I know this: my parish has a future because we are obeying Jesus Christ; we are making disciples. How about you and yours? If parishes do not obey they do not deserve to exist, and they can expect to close one day no matter how big they may be today. I, in my short 50 years on this planet, have seen it: parishes once big, booming, and (frankly) arrogant are now declining and some are even near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “Job 1.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become totally fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (I am not talking to the person next to you; I am talking to you.)
Happy feast of Pentecost! But don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you and then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a cold and dark world.
Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.
This video features details from the clerestory (upper window level) of my parish of Holy Comforter here in DC. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth (see photo above) through the lives of the saints (this means you, too). It is not magic; it is by grace working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!
The song says, We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy, and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary!
Here is another video I put together which has scenes from the Pentecost event and is set to Palestrina’s Dum Complerentur. I like this musical version since it is sung in dance time. The Latin text to the motet is below the video along with its English Translation.
Dum complerentur dies Pentecostes,
erant omnes pariter dicentes, alleluia,
et subito factus est sonus de coelo, alleluia,
tamquam spiritus vehementis,
et replevit totam domum, alleluia.
When the Day of Pentecost had fully come,
they were all with one accord in one place, saying: alleluia.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, alleluia,
as of a rushing mighty wind,
and it filled the whole house
where they were sitting, alleluia.
14 Replies to “The Fire Next Time – A Homily For the Feast of Pentecost.”
Thanks be to GOD. I used to be a timid, stuttering and stammering person who buckles in front of few people to speak my mind but The HOLY SPIRIT now use me to speak to a churchfull of people declaring the wonders of GOD in my life and the beauty of HIS Church in our midst. Ad Majorem DEI Gloriam.
Can you tell me about the training you have your parishioners? It’s that something that we could use in our parish?
Thank you Msgr. Pope, for the beautiful homily. Hmmm, perhaps our parish priest takes a sneak peek at your blog, as he stated , in his own words and led by the Spirit, just what you had written. He is such a good pastor. Also, thank you for the pictures of your church. I always wondered what it would look like. It appears to be a great source of inspiration for your parishioners. Our church also is very traditional in its architecture and liturgies. It was a long search to find it. Woe to the churches that fell to the modernist type. I do not see how austere walls and a single cross can inspire. The asthetics of a church, to me, are very important. May God continue to bless you and your parish. They are very lucky to have you . I feel the same about my parish priest also. I dread the day of the “big announcement” that he has to move on. We are inner city, also, and drive from the suburbs to attend.
Thank you for sharing about responsibility and means to share the faith .
Very likely that what is being done in the parish that glorifies the role of The Comforter has effects far beyond !
Those who are not yet finding the means to be in such activities consistently can take comfort that those 9 days of intense prayers that went before The Pentecost , that there is always need for same .
The Spirit would have guided those prayers , through The Mother too , may be even casting off evil , such as spirits of fear , doubt and disbelief as of Judas , of unforgivenss , hatred and breaking curses and effects of idolatry in its many forms , in those who were to listen to the Apostles too , so that The Spirit would be given the assent and freedom to guide and rule .
What astounding times ! Was watching the prayer for peace , in the Vatican Gardens – where in every Pope, esp. the Pope Emr.Benedict too would have paced and pleaded for such responsiblity that is on their shoulders !
May The Comforter be there for each of us too – pecking off what need to be , feeding us with the life and Blood of The Heart , so that we too be filled with love for The Father and from Him, free from what the enemy has brought in !
Thank you for this teaching about our personnal responsability of proclaiming our faith. We should stop making our faith something that must be kept “private” and secretive as the world would like it to be. Yes our faith is personal but it should be made public. I believe a good way to start is to tell those around us why we like to go to mass, or why we like to pray, what do we gain by praying the rosary regularly, etc. We should try to put in words the joy we get from worshiping the Lord. We ought to give testimony about our faith.
Monsignor, I have to say that the walls of your parish Church are very lovely. Those paintings are beautiful works of art that speak to us in a very spiritual way. They are truly remarkable and inspiring! The Holy Spirit is
present in the artist’s work.
Can we know the name of the artist who made these wonderful works of art? I tried to make some research on your church’s web site, which is by the way well documented, but I couldn’t find this information. Thank you.
“We as individual Christians are a disgrace, and not worthy of the name, if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth, but only through us.”
This sounds like you take the view that if the Church fails to win converts, it is the fault of the Church and the faithful.
Fr. James Schall, S.J., takes a different view and I think his view has much validity. He writes: “At least three quarters of the world’s present population live in politico-religious systems that make any real evangelization next to impossible.” He is referring, of course, to communist China and the Islamic world, as well as Hindu India.
I think the point that Fr. Schall is making is that the Church should not be overly self-critical if we fail to win many converts. Notwithstanding the Great Commission, the Lord did not promise a rich harvest. As Fr. Schall puts it: “There is no indication in Scripture that, in the end, there will be more than a few real believers in the world.” The whole article can be found here:
I don’t se any contradiction between Mgsr Pope and Fr Schall. Fr Schall says that it is virtually impossible to evangelise in certain countries. Mgsr Pope says that we all have a duty to evangelise. Given that there is nothing to stop Americans evangelising in America, it does not seem that Fr Schall is contradicting him. It might also be noted that the number of Christians in China is increasing and that can only come about from evangelising. It might be almost impossible for westerners to go an evangelise in China but it is obviously not impossible for Chinese people to evangelise in China.
Mike, here is another passage in Fr. Schall’s article that I think is worth highlighting:
“Perhaps a few places in Africa and Asia will allow some outside presence, but, for the rest of the world, including increasingly the Western states themselves, any fair presenting of what Christianity is becomes almost impossible. This situation need not be looked on as outside of providence or as hopeless, as John Paul II showed in the case of Marxism. But the contemporary alternative to Marxism in practice is not always or even often Christianity.”
Notice that he says that “any fair presenting of what Christianity is” is becoming “almost impossible” even in Western countries [i.e. Europe, North America]. The reason for this is explored by Fr. Schall is some of the other articles he has written for Crisis. They include political correctness, hate speech legislation, etc. We are seeing the development of a cultural climate in the West in which Scripture is being increasingly regarded as politically incorrect and even as hate speech. This obviously makes evangelization more difficult.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should not evangelize. Of course, we have to, but we have to be realistic and resist the temptation to beat ourselves up if we don’t reap a rich harvest. As Fr. Schall says: “When Scripture speaks of those who do not accept the gospels when cogently presented to them, it does not blame the apostles for this failure to believe or for lack of technique. It blames the people who refuse to listen.”
Always enjoy your inspirational sermons. Have a question. What is your view on Acts 2:38?
Thank You for allowing the Lord to use you and the gifts He has blessed you with to win as many souls as you can reach. I pray God’s abundant and continuous blessing for you and on the outreach ministering He has called and equipped you for.
I too, am interest in the training you offered to your street evangelization.
We have been reading Evangelii Gaudium, are being convicted about being closet Catholics and are wondering about how to channel this newfound enthusiasm to go out.
I try to read your blog every day and I am always uplifted and challenged–Thank you.
Thanks for the homily reminding us to go out and help others. Easier yet, while we are out, help others, opportunities are always there. Your many talents are a blessing to us, the videos with music are so very inspiring and calming, bring us closer to God.
I too really feel blessed (and convicted) by this article. I enjoy all the inspirational videos and music you often include. These kinds of things feed my soul so much and I find that, along with daily prayer, fill me to overflowing so that I cannot help but letting that flow out to others. Joy is a definite gift of the Holy Spirit and people do seem to like to be with me and will often respectfully hear me out on my views on God and the faith even if they don’t always agree with me. Sometimes people do respond, however, and they have felt an attraction to the Lord after our times together. I don’t think about numbers, that is God’s job, I just have to remember to be faithful. That said, sometimes I fail in that I don’t speak when the situation has been really intense. I have to pray for this faithfulness.
There are several books on the market which describe how parishes might become evangelising. One is ‘From Maintenance to Mission’ by Robert Rivers. This book contains many useful suggestions but is marred by a somewhat suspect theology and for its frequent comparisons between the pre-Vatican 2 Church (bad) and the post-Vatican 2 Church (good but still needing further reform). It would be useful to have a book which describes how a parish has taken on board the need to be evangelising without having the baggage found in the book I mention. Any chance that someone in your parish might produce such a book?
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