Today the church celebrates Pentecost. Last week we provided you some ideas for how you can mark this major feast at home.
I was baptized on Pentecost twenty years ago – almost, but not quite, half my lifetime. Despite having told and heard the story ever since, this year I see something new in it.
On the first Pentecost, the apostles are all together in one place, and the Holy Spirit comes to them. “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2:2-3).
The images of this moment are usually very literal. Wikipedia says this one, from 1308, is typical:
What do you notice? There is actual fire on the apostles’ heads.
In addition to being imaged as fire the Holy Spirit is also imaged as a bird in flight:
Why? Because “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” (Matthew 3:16).
Today you will see red at church, tongues of flame, and doves. But when I look closely at these passages, I see something else. I see the words “like” and “as of.” A sound like a violent wind, tongues as of fire, the Spirit descending like a dove.
The Bible doesn’t say that literal tongues of fire rested on the apostles at Pentecost, any more than it says that the Spirit arrived as an actual dove at Christ’s baptism. What the Bible actually says is that the Holy Spirit is like fire. The Holy Spirit is like a bird in flight.
What do tongues of fire and winged doves have in common? They are essentially wild: forces of nature beyond our capacity to control.
As a parent I take comfort in this thought. Because under my roof are other essentially uncontrollable forces of nature: my children. They are gifts from God whom God has made not for me, but for Himself. They are created not for my glory, but for God’s. When I remember that, it is easier to watch them grow – both up and away.
The images of flame and dove remind me to respond with awe to the gift of the Spirit. It is neither tame nor easily comprehensible. It is a force that reshapes human lives. Twenty years ago, it reshaped mine.
A Prayer for Today
O God, who on this day taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[Icon image credit: Duccio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]
What stands out to you in the Pentecost story this year?