May 15, 2016
First Reading: Acts 2:1-11
When we hear Jesus encourage his disciples to go evangelize, often we get discouraged. We reflect on our weakness, our failures, our many unsuccessful attempts to proclaim the word. We fear being rejected, ignored, or persecuted. Sometimes our words fall on deaf ears. When we experience the power of God’s love and want to share it with others, our efforts are frequently frustrated. In today’s celebration of Pentecost, however, God offers us a reality far greater than our own attempts. He offers us the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim his message of good news and invite others to share in the victory of Jesus.
Pentecost was a Jewish feast before it became a Christian one. It was celebrated fifty days or seven weeks after the feast of Passover and was called the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot (Hebrew for “weeks”). Similarly, Christians celebrate Pentecost fifty days after Easter. The word “Pentecost” simply means “fiftieth.” The Jewish feast entailed special grain offerings and animal sacrifices tied to the grain harvest (Lev 23:15-22). The feast also came to commemorate the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai and Jewish men would come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast together. That is why Acts tells us that Jews from every nation had come to Jerusalem for the feast.
A Fiery Prayer Meeting
While Acts 2:1 only tells us that “all” were together in “one place,” we can extrapolate from 1:12-14 that the one place is the upper room and the people present are the apostles, the women disciples of Jesus, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Traditional icons of Pentecost show Mary in the middle of the apostles when the fire from heaven descends. The disciples encountered the Father in all their prayer and Scripture reading. They had come to know the Son as he walked the earth, but now they are visited by the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity. Previously, the Holy Spirit was manifested as a dove (Mark 1:10), but now he comes as a “rushing violent wind” (my translation) and as fire. The sign of wind matches the words for spirit in Hebrew (ruah) and Greek (pneuma), which can be translated as “breath, wind, or spirit.” Jesus even teaches that “the wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Wind is a deliciously approprite symbol for the Holy Spirit who empowers, impels, inspires, and yet cannot be restricted or captured.
The tongues of fire, which came to rest on the disciples, are the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prophecy about Jesus, that he would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt 3:11 RSV). Frequently, fire serves as a powerful metaphor for God’s working in the soul. Fire is strong, destructive, beautiful, terrifying, and mysterious. These connotations explain the description of God as a “devouring fire” (Deut 4:24) and his appearance to Moses in the burning bush story. Now, at Pentecost, God reveals himself in the sign of heavenly fire to pour out his power on his disciples so that they might become true witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Speaking in Tongues
While on a few occasions early in Luke’s gospel an individual is filled with the Spirit (Luke 1:41; 1:67), now a large group of people are all filled. The sign which accompanies their being filled with the Holy Spirit is speaking in “other tongues,” that is, languages which they do not understand. Notably, this sign repeatedly comes with the Holy Spirit’s descent (Acts 10:46; 19:6). In addition, the apostles preach to the crowds in their own language, but are heard by the crowds in many different languages. (Stories from the lives of the saints like St. Anthony and St. Vincent Ferrer show that this preaching gift was not a one-time event but continues in the life of the Church.) These two manifestations of tongues seem to be the two sides of the same coin. Some interpreters see in the second manifestation an undoing of the Tower of Babel episode. In that story, the Lord introduced language confusion to divide man, but now he brings miraculous language understanding to unite him in the reception of the gospel.
The gospel message is the key. Here God comes in power, not to show off and merely impress people, but to convince them of the truth and relevance of the gospel. The gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God is the key. God wants us to hear and receive the message far more than we could ever even desire it. He wants us more than we want him. And in this truth, we can see how and why God offers these powerful signs on the day of Pentecost. He wants to offer all of those men who have come to Jerusalem to worship him an invitation to a deeper relationship, a new covenant, richly fulfilled in the death and resurrection of his Son. It is a message that demans an immediate response.
The Spirit comes to “convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). His power is far more effective in convicting hearts, changing minds, turning lives upside down with love than our arguments, efforts, programs and words will ever be. The apostles offer themselves as willing conduits of the fiery power of God and many hearts are opened to the gospel by the Spirit’s power. Human words and arguments are not enough. But when people encounter the power of God and the person of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, their hearts can come aflame with love.