• Acts 2:1-11
• Psa 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
• 1 Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13
• Jn 20:19-23
“Spirit and fire are united—a true miracle, air and fire are joined together—awesome sight!”
So wrote the sixth-century Church father, St. Romanus the Melodist, in a kontakion, or hymn, celebrating the solemnity of Pentecost. In another verse, he wrote, “Do you, then, dearly beloved, stand and simply observe the fire, which the One who is in heaven has sent from on high.” And, “Then brothers, let the One descended upon us cast out fear from our minds.”
His beautiful hymn emphasizes three essential truths about the Holy Spirit, each of which is revealed in today’s readings. First, the Holy Spirit is a heavenly gift from the Father and Son; secondly, he transforms and empowers those who receive him; thirdly, he unites the people of God—the Church—in an inimitable, supernatural way.
Let’s begin with John’s account of the apostles in the upper room, which describes a frightened group of men behind locked doors. Despondent and shattered, they were like lifeless clay or dry bones. But when Jesus entered, they rejoiced, and when he breathed upon them, they came alive with the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gen 2:7; Ezek 37:5). This shows how closely united are the death-destroying resurrection of Christ and the life-creating gift of the Holy Spirit.
Seven weeks later, the disciples were once again in the upper room, but filled with expectancy, not dread. Again, the presence of God came suddenly, this time with a noise like a strong wind and what appeared to be “tongues of fire”. God had once led the people of Israel out of Egypt under the appearance of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. On Pentecost, his presence was represented by wind and fire, and so began the pilgrimage of the newly revealed people of God, the Church. “By his coming, which never ceases, the Holy Spirit causes the world to enter into the ‘last days,’ the time of the Church, the Kingdom already inherited though not yet consummated” (par. 732).
This brings us to the second point, for in the Church, as St. Paul told the Corinthians, the “manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” The Holy Spirit is manifest—that is, he acts and empowers—through the sacrament of baptism, by which man is filled with divine life and united to the mystical body of Christ. This transformation was dramatically evident in the upper room on Pentecost, for the Spirit-filled disciples, having been touched by tongues of fire, were able to “speak in different tongues” and “to proclaim”. And what was proclaimed that day? The gospel of Jesus Christ, which culminated in Peter’s exhortation to the people to repent and be baptized, so “you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
That call to repentance was also a call to unity. At Babel, men desired to established unity and dominion through human power and ingenuity—a timeless temptation—by building a great city and tower (Gen 11:1-10). At Pentecost, God established unity and peace through the Holy Spirit, revealing to the world himself and his household, “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The Catechism states of Pentecost: “On that day, the Holy Trinity is fully revealed” (par 732).
God is one but also Triune—one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is perfect unity, but also perfect relationship and communion (cf. CCC, 253-6). The unity and catholicity of the Church is rooted in this great mystery of the Trinity. And from it, St. Paul wrote, flows a real and authentic diversity of gifts, service, and workings, for “we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
St. Romanus, at the conclusion of his hymn, asked, “Why, then should we be afraid of a flame that does not burn?” This solemnity is a call to repentance and unity, as well as to joy and peace, each given by the All-Holy Spirit.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the June 12, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)