The presence of the Holy Spirit is manifested in wind and fire at Pentecost, which we celebrate this Sunday. “Hrua,” the Hebrew word for Spirit, also means wind or breath. It is the word for the mighty wind sweeping over the waters at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2). It is the word in Ezekiel 37 when the prophet is called on to breathe God’s life into dry bones to bring them to life. At Pentecost, the wind or breath of the Spirit animates the people and gathers them together.
God guided the Israelites through the desert with a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). At Pentecost, God guided the apostles with a small pillar of fire over each of them. People can stare into a campfire for hours, captivated by the energy, brilliance and movement of the flames. The power of God, symbolized by the flames of fire came upon the apostles to move them and give them energy for the mission, so that, in the fulfilment of that mission, their lives might be pleasing offerings to God.
The Jewish feast of Pentecost was called Shavuot, initially celebrated as a time of thanksgiving for the harvest. It was also called the Feast of Weeks, being celebrated seven weeks after the Passover. By the time of Jesus, it was a major pilgrimage feast, thus accounting for the many people from all nations gathered in Jerusalem at the time. The celebration was also associated with the giving of the Jewish Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit came to the apostles to give them a “New Law” to be written, not on stone tablets, but in people’s hearts. The many territories listed in this first reading were places where Christianity would spread in the course of the first century; where the word of God preached by the apostles and their successors would be understood by people in their own language.
The fact that the people gathered together to witness the manifestation of the Spirit could understand the apostles’ proclamation of praise stands in contrast to the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11) in which God confuses the language of people for presuming that they could accomplish whatever they wanted on their own. On Pentecost everyone is able to understand the message, for it is a message uniting them as one in the name of Jesus and his Holy Spirit, not through their own personal gifts and accomplishments. To be moved by the Spirit requires handing over the direction of one’s life to God to direct your life and use you for God’s purposes.
(with thanks to Fr Denny Dempsey)