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.