What the Tongues of Fire Teach Us about the Church

Pentecost, it is often said, is the birthday of the Church. So what can we learn about the Church from the account of Pentecost in Acts 2?

There is, of course, so much that is happening here—the wind from heaven, the reversal of Babel, the wonderful sermon of Peter and the response it elicits—but perhaps the most enduring image from this event remains those mysterious ‘tongues of fire’ that split off over the heads from the apostles. In seeking to learn from this event, perhaps this, its most enigmatic element is an irresistible place to start.

What is immediately striking about this phenomenon is that it was so public. Here’s the account from Acts 2:

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. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. 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 (verses 1 to 6).

Although some key details are not recorded, this event overall appears to have all the markings of a public happening. A critical corollary follows: the Church—far from being the inner light that illuminates an invisible mass of ‘true’ Christians—from the first is manifested as a visible reality. This is of crucial importance for discerning how we understand the Church today, keeping in mind that so many who profess to be Christians do not accept the idea of a Church that is discernible as a single visible reality.

The emphasis on single is crucial here. The fire from above did not shower on all alike. Take a look again at verse 1 from Acts 2 above. It does not identify the ‘they’ on whom the fire rested. A quick flip back to the end of Acts 1 clarifies it: it’s the apostles we’re talking about here.

There’s further significance here: at the end of Acts 1, the number of the original 12—down because of Judas’ betrayal and subsequence suicide—has been restored. So it is the Church in its original most primal hierarchical form that receives the fire from above. Notably, there’s an essential unity to this plurality. As Acts 2:1 makes clear, ‘all were in one place together.’

(A side note: there seems to be a fair amount of vagueness on whether it’s just the ‘disciples’ or the fixed number of the Twelve who received the Holy Spirit. One of the sources that is most strenuous in insisting on a more limited reception is this evangelical Protestant writer here.)

The driving wind and the split flames of fire—these are two classic signs of the presence of God from the Old Testament. But after the Incarnation their meaning has been transformed. In John 3:8, Christ Himself had made an intriguing analogy between the Holy Spirit and the wind: “The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Notably, this is a baptismal context, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven one must be ‘born again’—or more, literally, ‘from above’ (in the sense of from heaven).

Elsewhere in the gospels, baptism is also again linked to the Holy Spirit, but this time paired with another natural phenomenon. For example, in Luke 3:16, John the Baptist declares that, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

We have here, in Acts 2, the definitive baptismal event that is the work of the Holy Spirit and that grounds the Church in the paschal mystery of Christ. As St. Paul writes in Romans 6:3-4:

Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.

(See also Colossians 2:12 and this excerpt from a General Audience from Pope St. John Paul II.) Thus, Christ, who has just ascended into heaven, has now been made present in a new way: the Church.

Given the connection between baptism and the paschal mystery, we are inclined to wonder if there are any Eucharistic elements present here in the birthday of the Church. And the answer indeed seems yes. The life of this newborn Church is described in highly compressed form in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”

We’re not reading meaning into that verse to see in the phrase ‘the breaking of the bread’ a reference to the Eucharist. What is translated above in the NABRE as ‘communal life’ is, in the Greek, koinōni, which is better translated as communion. And, given that all the other acts mentioned in that verse are spiritual ones, the ‘breaking of bread’ seems unlikely just a reference to the fact that they had meals together (which they probably did do).

But there’s another, more hidden connection to the Eucharist, and this appears in the event of Pentecost itself, in what has become one of its enduring images—those tongues of fire.

The exact phrase ‘tongues of fire’ appears to come from Isaiah 5:24 where it is used as an image for destruction and judgment. But the basic image, one involving fire and the mouth, recurs in the next chapter in a more positive sense. Whereas fire had judged in Isaiah 5, in Isaiah 6 it is the purgative fire that the prophet encounters while receiving a heavenly vision of angels worshipping God in His eternal temple. Isaiah is frightened, recognizing that he is in the presence of God and is impure (in his words he had ‘unclean lips’):

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (Isaiah 6:6-7).

In this moment, commentators like this one have seen an obvious Old Testament foreshadowing of the Eucharist. In fact, the Liturgy of St. James, still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church, indirectly alludes to this moment and applies it to the Eucharist and, in the Byzantine liturgies, the priest quotes the words of the seraph. The fact that this burning coal is taken from the altar, only reinforces the connection between the Eucharist and the sacrifice of Christ, already in mind through baptism. There is thus a deep mysticism built into the Pentecost account.

It’s notable, of course, that once his lips had been purged, Isaiah immediately answered the call of God to start proclaiming his word of judgment. So also here, the apostles start preaching, warning of judgment and calling all to repentance. The first great missionary movement of the Church had begun.

But note the sequence of events. Before any words had been spoken, the Church, at its most primordial moment, existed as a means of making God present in the world.

image: The New Creation of Pentecost, in the chapel of Pentecost in Lourdes’ Rosary Basilica, by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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