Tongues of fire: sermon on Whit Sunday

“When the days of Pentecost were accomplished, the disciples were all together in one place.”

When St Paul was travelling on one of his missionary journeys, he came one day to the city of Ephesus, where he found a group of believers. He wanted to know whether they had received the sacrament of confirmation, and so he asked them, “Have you received the Holy Ghost since you believed?” They answered him, “We have not so much as heard whether there be a Holy Ghost.” We are in a better position than those believers, since we certainly know that the Holy Spirit exists, and that He is the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. But if St Paul were to come among us today and say to us, “Tell me more about this Holy Spirit whom you have received,” would we know how to answer him? 

It’s a good general principle that if we want to know what something is, we should look at its effects. So, if we want to understand more about the third divine Person, whose coming upon the Church we commemorate today, we should look at the effects which He produced. What are these effects? When the apostles and the disciples, with the Blessed Virgin and the other holy women, had been praying in the cenacle for nine full days, the Holy Spirit was sent from heaven on the tenth day. St Luke describes the scene: “There came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as of fire.”

The first question, then, is why does the Holy Ghost manifest Himself by a mighty wind and by fire? These are both symbols of love. Fire is ardent: the word ardent literally means “burning”. In the same way, love is ardent: it consumes the obstacles that lie between it and the object loved. Likewise, a mighty wind drives everything before it. Even great trees which have remained rooted in the soil for hundreds of years can be uprooted overnight by a mighty wind. And love drives people forward: it impels them to undertake great things. Think of a soldier going into battle for love of his country. It’s true that not all love is from the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it is simply from human nature. But when someone’s love is from the Holy Spirit — what we call supernatural charity — then that person is drawn out of himself to do great things, with ardour, for God. Think of missionaries going into foreign lands to preach the Gospel even at the cost of their lives.

Now I am going to say something which may sound strange, but which is nevertheless true, and is good theology: the Holy Spirit draws God Himself out of Himself. It is true, of course, that God cannot change. But in eternity, there is a certain ordering among the three divine Persons. By knowing Himself, God the Father conceives His Son, the Word. And by Their love, the Father and the Son breathe forth the Holy Ghost. Whatever I love, draws me to itself. The Father and the Son love God — that is, they love one another and Themselves and the divine nature. Thus, the Holy Spirit is God as calling forth the love of the Father and the Son. That is why I say that the Holy Spirit draws God Himself out of Himself.

The next thing to note in St Luke’s description of the first Pentecost is that the fire appeared as tongues, resting over the head of each one. Despite the mighty wind that was blowing through the house, the fire stayed where it was, a tongue of fire over the head of each of the disciples. At the same time, they received the power to speak foreign languages, so they could evangelise people of all nations. The same thing, by the way, happened to the disciples in Ephesus, whom I mentioned at the beginning. After St Paul had conferred the sacrament of confirmation upon them, they also received the gift of speaking foreign languages, and of prophesying.

So, the Holy Ghost is the one who gives us the power of speech. Not speech about this or that trivial thing, but rather, words to declare “the wonderful works of God”. As the introit from today’s Mass says, using words from the Book of Wisdom, “This one who sustains all things has knowledge of the voice”, that is, He can teach us to speak. It is true that individual believers today rarely receive a miraculous gift of speaking foreign languages; but as St Irenaeus of Lyon explained, already in the second century, this is because the Church herself now speaks all languages, since the Gospel has been spread throughout the world. What we receive in confirmation is something less spectacular but more important than the power to speak words in Persian or Coptic: it is the power to confess our faith in Christ before men. For the most wonderful of the wonderful works of God is the redemptive Incarnation itself: the fact that God became man and died for us to set us free from sin. If then you ever find difficulty in living as a Christian in the midst of the world, ask the Holy Ghost to revive your grace of confirmation within you. It was the grace of confirmation which gave a tongue of fire to so many martyrs when they were brought to trial — for example, to St Joan of Arc and St Thomas More.

And the last effect that is attributed to the Holy Spirit, this time by Jesus in the gospel, is that He brings to the apostles’ memories all that they heard: all that they had heard from our Lord while He was with them on earth. This applies not just to the apostles themselves but to their successors until the end of time. The Holy Ghost reminds the bishops of the Church of the faith which has been passed down from the beginning. That is why He is sometimes called the soul of the Church. I think that this is also what is meant when St Luke tells us that the mighty wind did not just make itself felt in this or that part of the cenacle, but rather “filled the whole house where they were sitting”. Just as our soul is not only in this or that part of our body but in the whole of our body, so the wind filled the whole house; it was representing the Holy Ghost, as the soul of the whole Church.

This, then, is what we might say to the apostle St Paul if he were to come among us today and examine us to see what we knew about the Holy Ghost. We could tell him that He proceeds in eternity by the love of the Father and the Son; that He gives us the power to speak boldly about the Cross and Resurrection of Christ; and that He dwells in the Catholic Church as her uncreated Soul. That, I think, would satisfy him.

But finally, notice that on Pentecost Sunday, after the apostles began preaching, three thousand Jews were converted. So today is a good day to pray for conversions. Maybe the conversion of a friend or a family member to the faith. Maybe the conversion of someone we love from a sinful way of life. And the conversion of all of us — laity, priests and bishops — to lives of greater holiness. Come, O Holy Spirit.