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Fire and Form

Day of Pentecost

First reading and psalm: Acts 2:1-21 or Gen. 11:1-9 • Ps. 104:25-35, 37
Alternate: Rom. 8:14-17 or Acts 2:1-21 • John 14:8-17 (25-27)

We are in Year C of the lectionary cycle, but there is no harm, particularly on so high a feast, in considering all the readings of all the years or in looking to any expression that awakens one to the wonder and danger of the Holy Spirit. The story of Eldad and Medad (Num. 11:24-30, Year A) stands out in particular as an expression of the Spirit’s freedom to disturb the gatekeepers of grace. The Spirit bewilders, amazes, astonishes, and perplexes those upon whom he falls and to whom he speaks (Acts 2:1-13).

The Spirit is a violent wind, the incessant pouring out of love from the Father to the Son and the responsive love of the Son to the Father. This giving and returning is a spiration, a vortex of virtue, in the old Latin sense of power and strength. This is beyond human knowing and ultimately beyond human control. Joshua’s remark (“My Lord Moses, stop them!”) expresses well the fearful wonder of the Spirit’s liberty (Num. 11:28). This love is movement and yet it is still, it is sound and yet a symphony.

The Spirit gives utterance in the language of the peoples, the “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and the residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans, and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11). Into this cacophony of speech comes clear intelligence: “we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (v. 11). This is not that proud tongue of those intent upon building their own path to heaven (Gen. 11:1-9). Rather, this is a vernacular vivified by the Spirit’s coordinating work, and thus diversity is united in a catholic witness to divine deeds of power. People who cannot understand each other are nonetheless grasped by the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God (1 Cor. 12:4-7). They are adopted into the household of God, and so become children and heirs (Rom. 8:17).

How are tongues, gifts, and activities coordinated? By what means do we serve the common good? Is freedom folly and discord? To be sure, we are warned not to quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19), and yet there is a mysterious operation in the very heart of God which makes a symphonic whole of such diversity. Jesus says, “I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10). The Son is a divine person, and so is never severed from the inner life of the Father. The Son is the person whom the Father wills in love. The Son speaks the word of the Father, for the Son is eternally that very Word. The Spirit’s presence in the Church, being the Spirit which proceeds from the Father and the Son, is a reciprocal and coordinating love. Tongues and gifts then are not private assertions, but promptings that give a unified witness to “God’s deeds of power.”

In daily life, spiritual tongues and gifts will always need to be discerned, discussed, and sifted, and put to use as occasion suggests and providence reveals. This is never easy; occasional adjustment is rather the norm. Holding together the Spirit’s freedom and the Spirit’s formation of the common good, hear this verse: “fire sent from the throne into the disciples … fills the heart and expands speech, inviting us to harmony of heart and modulation of tongue” (Latin hymn, my translation).

Look It Up
Read John 14:14. Consider “in my name” as the key to “I will do it.”

Think About It
Given the mystery of the name, there is no telling what God may do. Don’t tell, receive!


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