By tradition, St. Luke was a painter, and when we read the Gospel and Acts, we can guess why: his stories are so vivid, he brings scenes to life by his words. He not only tells us the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but he shows it to us, in vivid scene after vivid scene, from the Annunciation and Nativity to the synagogue in Capernaum, to the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son, to the sad and poignant story of the Good Thief who died next to Jesus, and the two disciples with whom Jesus walked in their moment of despair after his death.
In Acts, he continues to paint with words, and today’s first reading, for the great feast of Pentecost, is no exception:
"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
"Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (Acts of the Apostles 2.10-13)
But like many a fine painting, what we see first is just that, a general view. In an excellent albeit skeptical 1964 article, Frank W. Beare, a NT scholar, asks about some of the oddities here:
1. Which noise did the people hear? The wind of the Spirit, or the apostles’ speaking in other tongues?
2. What would it have sounded like, were the apostles all speaking loudly in different languages, all at the same time? Just a lot of noise? Is that why some people thought they were all drunk?
3. In any case, the crowd was made of up of local people, plus many God-fearing Jews and converts from abroad who were actually settled in Jerusalem, not merely visiting for a few days. Surely they spoke Aramaic, and probably Greek. So what was the speaking in other tongues all about?
Beare concludes that the Pentecost story cannot really be about simultaneous translation or anything like that. So what is Luke showing us? When he steps forward and speaks, Peter gives a clue:
“Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. (2.14-18)
Touched by the Spirit, those men and women on whom the Spirit descended lost their inhibitions and came out of their shuttered rooms, ready at last to speak freely, their tongues loosened. Because their words were Spirit-enflamed, they could be understood by those who listen to them, all differences aside. That day the apostles did not mouth generalities, one size fits all. Rather, they spoke in their own voices, directly to their listeners as persons, in words and sentences they would understand in accord with their own inner voices. That is why the gift of the Spirit has to be given to each individual, not to the Church in general. This is why the Spirit comes not merely in fire or wind, or in a single flame, but as individual flames inspiring individual tongues, each person touched differently.
In this reading although Peter stands forth a spokesman for all, he is also just a good example of how any of the apostles would speak up eloquently. All of them had been touched by the Spirit, and surely those other apostles too spoke eloquently that day, in their own manner and style. I hope so. I cannot imagine John speaking as did Peter, or Andrew or James. Later in Acts we do hear the distinctive words of Stephen, the first martyr, in Acts 7, and of course very many words from Saul who became Paul. Indeed, in the early centuries of Christianity, we also find, outside the New Testament, the Acts of Philip, the Acts of Thomas, the Acts of John and of other apostles. The silence of the New Testament on the words of Mary, Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and other women should not mislead us into thinking that they did not speak publicly at all. Here too other books were composed, such as the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene. And who can believe that Mary, Mother of Jesus, spoke no more after her prayer of praise in Luke 2? Every recipient of the Spirit spoke in the Spirit, words of truth or justice or peace or beauty or love, every word needed.
In any case, when words of the Spirit are spoken in freedom and without fear, the effect is dramatic:
"When the people heard Peter's words, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (2.37-41)
Cut to the heart — ready to repent, to be baptized, to change their lives: 3,000 in a single day. Why, because each person heard words that spoke to their own hearts. Pentecost is not merely people speaking in the Spirit, it is about hearing in the Spirit too.
At Pentecost we are most likely not receiving the gift of speaking many languages, nor are we going to make loud sounds in the Spirit, speaking in tongues that cannot be understood by anyone without an interpreter (I Corinthians 12 and 14). As the Spirit comes yet again on the Church in May 2021, a Spirited tongue of fire helps you and me to find our own voices, to speak in our own language — which, in simplicity of heart, can speak directly to the hearts of others, person to person, heart to heart. If we try all to speak in one voice, or cede the speaking to one or two people, we will fail. But if we allow the Spirit to inspire us to speak up on our own, individually but for the sake of the community, then the Church will truly be born again. St. Paul catches this nicely in today’s second reading:
"Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (I Corinthians 12.7-11)
Hearing the Word, and allowing it to become our living word too, spoken anew in your voice and mine, is so very important in the world in which we are living. The pandemic is still killing so many of our poorest and most vulnerable sisters and brothers around the world. But there is more: it was Pentecost a year ago that I found myself having to weave together the murder of George Floyd — “I can’t breathe” — with the powerful wind and fire of the Spirit at Pentecost 2020. A year later, in the shadow of his death and all that followed, and in the gloom of other racial and racist incidents, perhaps we are making progress toward facing up to the sins of our society. But is it enough? We cannot say.
And although in writing today’s words I did not mention the recent fighting in Israel and Gaza, those events too have shadowed what I have written. In the very same Jerusalem and Holy Land where Jews celebrated Shavuot and the early Christian community was set on fire by the Spirit, we see how people of different faiths — even if all children of God — treat each other as enemies in a seemingly insoluble dispute. Will they – and we – find a way forward, speaking but also living justly, sharing what we have with every person in need? We cannot say.
But what is clear is that we will have no role to play — good intentions are not enough — unless we allow the fire of the Spirit to touch us and free up our tongues, that our words may be alive with truth, vulnerable to justice, and committed to love for as long as we live. Where the Spirit blows and sets on fire, in myriad small flames, there is hope for the future.
A Concluding Note: As I have mentioned in past weeks at the end of many of these written homilies, today’s is the last in the series, 62 homilies in a series that began in March 2020. The parishes are open again, and Our Lady of Sorrows now has three regular weekend Masses, plus the recorded weekend Mass at the website every week. My purpose in helping to fill the gap has reached a natural conclusion, so it is best now to return the Spirit to the community, to you my readers. But thanks for reading, and for your encouraging comments over the past year. And, as they say, see you in church!