Pentecost: what are “tongues of fire”?

In English, we are accustomed to hearing the phrase “tongues of fire” when referring to the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Though it may seem strange at first, the meaning is quite clear. The original Greek text of Acts gives uses the real word for the bodily organ “tongue” (γλῶσσαι, toungues)– Luke is not using some metaphor or allegorical description. Of course, the word in Greek also denotes the concepts of language and speech.

Especially in the Old Testament, however, diversity of language is the punishment for the pride of man, and from disparity of tongue comes the division of mankind. In its original sense, the languages are a curse, a barrier, a separation of peoples from the primordial brotherhood intended by God. Pentecost is the Lord’s reversal of Babel, and he manifests his supreme power in that logic-defying manner which befits his divinity; just as in Christ he did not abolish physical death but transformed it into a passage to victory, in the Spirit he takes up the plurality of tongues and makes of it a means to reach the furthest edges of the world.

Language– communication– is fire. The seed of Christian faith was first planted not by armies but by Apostles. Through their kerygmatic preaching, inspired by the Spirit, they carried the fulfilled hope of Israel from Jerusalem and brought it as far west as Spain (James the Greater) and as far east as India (Thomas), and the spark of faith lit by the Apostles in these places grew into ardent, courageous communities of faith who survived generations of persecution.

The image of fiery tounges dividing (διαμεριζόμεναι γλῶσσαι ὡσεὶ πυρός) and coming to rest on each of the Apostles points to the innate connection of Pentecost with Easter. Though the fire was divided, the Apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (ἐπλήσθησαν πάντες πνεύματος ἁγίου). The splitting of fire does not diminish its power but confirms it; precisely through the division of that holy flame, each of the Apostles received the fullness of the sacrum septenarium. As we conclude the Easter season, we recall the celebration of fire which commenced this same season. In the dark of Holy Saturday night, the already-victorious Church, tantis irradiata fulgoribus, sang of the Easter candle’s light: qui licet sit divisus in partes, mutuati tamen luminis detrimenta non novit (“this fire, though divided into parts, by such change still knows no loss”).

There is a Catholic colloquialism which calls Pentecost “the birthday of the Church”. I never liked this appellation. Calling “Pentecost” the “birthday of the Church” does an injustice to Holy Thursday, the night in which Christ established the Priesthood and the Eucharist. By instituting the Priesthood and Eucharist in the context of the holiest Jewish feast, Christ himself firmly established the continuity between the Old and New Covenants while bestowing upon his disciples a nascent liturgical form proper to the new reality which he ordained in the Upper Room.

To use sacramental analogies: if the Church was “born” at Holy Thursday, then Pentecost was her baptism/confirmation (recall that the ancient Church had not clearly distinguished the two). In this year’s homily for Pentecost, Pope Francis said:

Il giorno di Pentecoste, quando i discepoli “furono colmati di Spirito Santo”, fu il battesimo della Chiesa, che nacque “in uscita”, in “partenza” per annunciare a tutti la Buona Notizia.

The day of Pentecost, in which the disciples were “filled with the Holy Spirit”, was the baptism of the Church, which was born “going forth”, in “voyage”, to announce the Good News to all.

Weeks earlier, during Mass in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, the Pope said of that sacred place, da qui è nata la Chiesa, e da qui è partita (“from here, the Church was born, and from here, it went forth”). In that short phrase, Francis referred to both Holy Thursday and Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Church was already a living reality. The Apostles had joyfully witnessed the risen Christ and had seen him ascend to the Father. But they had not yet the wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord which would lead them to fulfill the Great Commission, to “preach the Gospel to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:16-20).

Just as at baptism a Christian emerges from the waters of death to bring the light of Christ into the world, the Church at Pentecost unlocks the doors of the Upper Room to go into the world “speaking of the mighty acts of God.” No longer is she afraid and uncertain, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, she goes resolutely to the peripheries, proclaiming Christ to hostile men and claiming for God the future of the world. At Pentecost, she receives her missionary character, the stamp on her soul which transforms her from a closed Jewish sect into the intrepid couriers of the Word. The same Spirit which emboldened the primitive Church to unabashedly preach Christ to those who killed him now drives us to go into the world and preach to all peoples and all languages so that “every tongue confess: Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).

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