19 May 2024

Homily - Why does the Holy Spirit appear as a dove and as tongues of fire?

The Solemnity of Pentecost (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

In the beginning, “the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water” (Genesis 1:1). We see here the presence of the Holy Spirit at the dawn of creation. We also see the Holy Spirit present at the creation of humanity: “the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The breath of the Holy Spirit both creates and gives life.

It is rather curious that when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Lord Jesus in the waters of the Jordan that he came down in the form of a dove, but when he descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost he did so in the form of “tongues as of fire” (cf. Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; and John 1:32; Acts 2:3). Why does the Holy Spirit manifest himself in these different ways?


Detail, The descent of the Holy Spirit. Livre d’Heures d’Anne d’Autriche à l’usage de Rome, MS NAL 3090, f. 70r.

We are not told in the Scriptures why there is this difference, but still, we can posit a reason. If we consider the dove, this bird is said to be

…very meek, and innocent, and peaceful. The Savior is the Judge of all mankind, but he did not come to judge mankind, as he himself said, but to save… He wanted to guide us first with gentleness, so that he might afterwards save us at his judgment. This is why the Holy Ghost was seen above Christ in the likeness of a dove, because he was dwelling in this world in meekness, and innocence, and peacefulness.[1]

The natural characteristics of the dove provide insight as to one of the Holy Spirit’s manifestations.

Before we consider what the natural properties of fire can tell us about this manifestation of the Holy Spirit, we should first consider why he manifested himself as tongues of fire? He did so because

…it was by tongues [namely those of the serpent, of Adam, and of Eve] that death entered into the world (cf. Wisdom 2:24). The tongue of the serpent was poison to Eve, the tong 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.[2]

With his forked and deceitful tongue, the serpent spoke a great lie to Eve and tricked her into believing God did not want – or even know – what was best for her, what would lead her to happiness, fulfillment, and peace. Through her conniving, Eve convinced Adam 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, second, God for placing Eve by his side.

It was, then, through breath and the tongue that the poison of sin entered creation and doomed mankind to eternal death; now it is through breath and the tongue that the antidote to the poison of sin is 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 seven-fold gifts.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit God the Father raised the Lord Jesus 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 own life. Jesus breathes this same Spirit upon us so we, too, might have a share in his life. As Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit anew in this fashion, what was done through the breath and tongue of serpent, of Eve, and of Adam has been undone; all has been restored and renewed.

Now we come to the question of fire. The element of 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.”[3]

It is the fire of the Holy Spirit we received at Baptism that burns away the poison of sin and cleanses us from its filth. It is the fire of the Holy Spirit that convicts us of our sins by waking us from our slumbering laziness and fills us with the bright light of truth. In this way we are recreated. We must be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us; we must not stifle his work, but rather yield to him and so come to an ever more profound understanding of the love Christ the Lord showers upon us sinners. We must allow him to set our hearts aflame with divine love so the light of the world might shine brightly through us (cf. John 8:12).

Saint Augustine sums up for us why the Holy Spirit appeared as both a dove and as fire. He says, “The former shape denoted simplicity, the latter fervency…. The dove intimates that those who are sanctified by the Spirit should have no guile; the fire indicates that in that simplicity there should not be coldness.”[4]

Many people today often ask why the power of the Lord, why the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is not more manifest today, why it is not more clearly visible as it was in the time of the Apostles. We cannot forget 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.”[5] We should each pray he will pour out his gifts upon us, but we must first make room for him in our hearts because

…this power, the grace of the Holy Spirit, is not something we can merit or achieve, but only receive as pure gift. God’s love can only unleash its power when it is allowed to change us from within. We have to let it break through the hard crust of indifference, our spiritual weariness, our blind conformity to the spirit of this age. Only then can we let it ignite our imagination and shape our deepest desires.[6]

We cannot tell him what gift we want or in what way we want to receive it; rather, we must simply allow him to move as he wills, desiring whatever grace he chooses to give and for whatever purpose. Only then can we, too, speak “of the mighty acts of God” (Acts 2:11). Let us, then, ask the Holy Spirit to breathe upon us, to shake the foundations of our cold hearts with the fire of his love, and loose our tongues to sing the praises of him who is risen from the dead. Amen.

[1] Blessed Aelfric of Eynsham, Sermon on the Holy Day Pentecost. Benjamin Thorpe, trans., The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church (London: 1844).

[2] Saint Anthony of Pauda, Sermon of Pentecost, 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 6.3-5.

[5] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermon of Pentecost, 3.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 20 June 2008.