Today there is one question that we must ask: Why did the Holy Spirit come down upon the Apostles as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3)? Saint Anthony of Padua suggests that the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in this fashion
because it was by tongues (namely those of the serpent, Eve and Adam) that death entered into the world [cf. Wisdom 2:24]. The tongue of the serpent was poison to Eve, the tongue of Eve poisoned Adam, and Adam’s tongue tried to turn the blame back on God. The tongue is a cold organ, surrounded by moisture; thus: “It is an unquiet evil, full of deadly poison [James 3:8],” than which there is nothing colder. Therefore the Holy Spirit appeared in tongues of fire, to apply tongues to tongues, fire to deadly poison (Sermons, Pentecost, 3).With his forked and deceitful tongue, the serpent spoke a great lie to Eve and tricked her into believing that God did not want – nor even know – what was best for her, what would lead her to happiness, fulfillment, and peace. Through her conniving, Eve convinced Adam that it was safe to eat the fruit of the tree of which they were forbidden to eat. Through his pride, Adam refused to accept responsibility for his action, blaming first Eve for having tricked him and in the end blaming God, presumably for having placed the tree in the garden in the first place.
It is through the tongue and through the breath that the poison of sin and death entered into creation and doomed mankind to eternal death. Now it is through a tongue that the antidote to the poison of sin and death will be given to a fallen world. Today, through the breath and tongue of the Holy Spirit the Lord “renew[s] the face of the earth” by bestowing upon us his manifold gifts, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel:
O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD (Ezekiel 37:12-14).Through the power of the Holy Spirit God the Father raised the Lord Jesus Christ from death and restored him to life. As the Crucified and Risen Savior breathed the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles he breathed into them his very life, and so Jesus breathes this same Spirit into and upon us so that we, too, might live. As Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit anew in this fashion what was done through the breath and tongue of the serpent, of Eve and of Adam has been undone; all has been restored and renewed. Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we are made new creations in Christ the Lord.
We have seen why the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles in the form of tongues, but why did he descend as tongues of fire? Saint Anthony teaches us, saying:
Note that fire has four natures: it burns, it cleanses, it warms, it gives light. Similarly the Holy Spirit burns away sins, cleanses hearts, shakes off sloth, and enlightens ignorance (Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon, Pentecost, 3).It is first of all, then, the fire of the Holy Spirit that we received at Baptism that burns away the poison of sin and death. It is the fire of the Holy Spirit who convicts us of our sins and leads us to confess them by waking us from our slumber and laziness and filling us with the light of Truth. In this way, and only in this way, we are re-created. We must be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us. We cannot stifle his work. We must yield to him and so come to a profound understanding of the love that Christ the Lord showers upon us sinners.
Let us always remember that, as Saint Anthony of Padua teaches us,
The Holy Spirit, “sharing with each as he will” [cf. I Corinthians 12:11], breathes his grace where, how, how much, when and on whom he will. May he deign to breathe it on us, he who this day breathed his grace on the Apostles in tongues of fire. To him be always praise and glory, through everlasting ages. Amen” (Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon, Pentecost, 3).