The Solemnity of Pentecost (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Saint Luke tells us that when the Apostles were gathered together “there are 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” (Acts 2:3). This is a curious image, to be sure, but one packed with meaning.
In these tongues, Saint Anthony of Padua sees a very fitting image of fulfillment. While we ponder why the Holy Spirit should come upon the Apostles in the form of tongues as of fire, the Doctor of the Gospels knew the answer. When we ask why, he answers:
Because it was by tongues (namely, those of the serpent, Adam and Eve) that death entered 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 (Sermon for Pentecost, 3).“No human being can tame the tongue,” Saint James tells us, because the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
If this is so, why should the Holy Spirit come as tongues of fire? He came to restore order to fallen creation, as we beg of the Lord in the Psalm: “Send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30). The Spirit descended in this way to undo what had been done, to correct it and restore it to grace. For this reason we pray to the Holy Spirit, “Heal our wounds, our strength renew; on our dryness pour your dew; wash the stains of guilt away (Sequence for Pentecost).”
The tongue of the serpent deceived Eve into choosing a lesser good in place of God, who is the supreme Good, who is Goodness itself (cf. Genesis 3:5). The tongues of Eve and of Adam tasted the fruit of the only tree in Paradise they were not to touch (cf. Genesis 3:3) and through the touch of their tongues they brought toil and death into the world (cf. Genesis 3:19). And when they tasted the fruit of that tree, our first parents separated themselves from God and hid from him in the trees of the Garden (cf. Genesis 3:8). What is more, with his tongue, Adam, rather than accepting his guilt, blamed Eve; in doing so he blamed God himself, for it was God who, as Adam says, gave the woman to be with him (cf. Genesis 3:12).
Yes, the tongue is full of deadly poison, but not the tongue of the Holy Spirit. No, there is no poison in it, only fire. For this reason Saint Anthony says, “Therefore the Holy Spirit appeared in tongues of fire, to apply tongues to tongues, fire to deadly poison" (Sermon for Pentecost, 3).
It has been said that fire has four characteristics: “it burns, it cleanses, it warms, [and] it gives light” (Sermon for Pentecost, 3).
Just as a natural fire burns at the touch, so, too, does the fire of the Holy Spirit burn the soul it touches, but not in a way as to harm the soul. The fire of the Spirit sets the soul afire with the love of God. This fire, the flame of faith, was given us at Baptism and we must guard this flame with great care. What is more, we must fan this flame into a great fire, mindful of the words of Saint Catherine of Sienna: “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire.”
As natural fire cleanses, so, too, the fire of the Holy Spirit cleanses the soul of its attachment to sin. The greater his fire burns within our soul the more he purifies our thoughts and intentions and he leads us to greater depths of holiness.
The warmth of a natural fires draws people toward it. In the same way, the warmth of the fire of the Spirit draws those who have felt his warmth. The warmth of the Spirit is the warmth of peace, the peace of Jesus Christ that is received in Sacramental confession and absolution.
And just as the light of a natural fire is attractive, so, too, is the light of the Holy Spirit. As his fire burns in the soul of a Christian and produces an ever greater holiness, his light shines forth as if from a great lantern or light house. We need only think of the light of the Holy Spirit that shone in the eyes and the smile of Blessed Mother Teresa.
Certainly, each of us would like to be as happy as this great woman, but are we willing to call upon the Holy Spirit as she did, to make room for him in our lives, to welcome him into the homes of our souls? Are we ready to let his fire burn within us?
On the one hand, we want this power, this force, of the Holy Spirit; and on the other hand, we do not. If we invite the Holy Spirit to be the “soul’s most welcome guest,” we know – at least on some level – that we must relinquish control to him, for the Spirit blows where he will (cf. John 3:8). We cannot harness his power; it is he who harnesses us; we must place ourselves at his disposal.
The Holy Spirit does indeed come like “a strong driving wind” (Acts 2:2), for when he comes he
makes us restless with our possessions, our comfort, our respect that is often based on dubious compromises. He is a tempest. He does not let us settle down in our comfort but exposes us to ridicule by putting us in the service of truth and obliging us to exercise the self-control that loves the other person ‘as myself’… And yet, this tempest that frees man from himself and makes him true and kind, is it not the most radical of all revolutions, the only real hope for the world (Pope Benedict XVI, Seek That Which Is Above: Meditations Through the Year [San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 2007], 104)?Yes, it was this tempest that set a fire in the hearts of the Apostles. It was this tempest that led to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ with great boldness in the streets of Jerusalem. It was this tempest that allowed their tongues to speak in languages unknown to them but known to those who heard them. It was this tempest who put these words on the tongues of the Apostles, even as they faced ridicule and death in the service of the truth: “I will be glad in the LORD” (Psalm 104:34).
If you, dear brothers and sisters, want to be glad in the Lord, if you want to know the peace he has come to give, then you must ask the Holy Spirit to strengthen his gifts that have already been given you.
When those tongues as of fire appeared to the Twelve, they parted and came to rest on each of them. And this flame filled them and this tempest drove them out to give testimony to Christ, Crucified and Risen. Filled with the power of the Spirit and with the joy and peace of the Risen Lord, they did not count the cost; they no longer thought of themselves or what others thought of them and gave themselves over entirely to God.
We must be willing to do the same, for those same tongues of fire have alighted upon us, for in the Sacrament of Confirmation “to each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit” (I Corinthians 12:7). Now is the time to fan that fire into a great flame, letting it cleanse and transform us into our full potential, our authentic humanity. This is the revolution we need.
The Holy Spirit comes to those who call upon him in faith and in trust; he
breathes his grace where, how, how much, when and on whom he will. May he deign to breath it on us, he who on this day breathed his grace on the Apostles in tongues of fire. To him be always praise and glory, through everlasting ages. Amen (Sermon for Pentecost, 3).