One of the most commonly depicted images in Christian art is that of the disciples at Pentecost. Around the world, there have been countless versions of the men and women gathered in a locked room in Jerusalem, each with a “tongue of flame” above their heads.
The passage from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2.1-11) read this Sunday describes an astonishing scene:
“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 rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”
Sounds exciting, eh? What the author of Acts doesn’t mention is how those men and women felt moments before. After living through more than a year of various COVID-19 driven lockdowns, it won’t be much of a stretch for us to imagine. We can picture them locked in this room, anxious, fearful, even filled with dread of outside agents finding out about their existence and sending the authorities in to arrest them.
Eerily familiar, isn’t it? We’ve all been confined in this past year in ways that have provoked anxiety, dread and despair. We’ve been afraid of assault from an invisible disease that strikes indiscriminately. We’ve worried about the repercussions, from unemployment, to separation from family and friends, isolation and poverty, even death.
But on that first Pentecost, something happened that was beyond human understanding. The Holy Spirit intervened, represented in art by those little floating flames. Each of those gathered in the room felt spiritually and emotionally lifted, their hearts filled with joy and courage. So much so, that they had to run out the doors and proclaim their Good News to all the strangers they could find.
It strikes me that a contemporary equivalent to the flame could be the light bulb. Lit light bulbs appeared over their heads and their frowns turned to smiles. Suddenly, they got it! I picture Peter holding up a finger and shouting, “So that’s what Jesus was talking about!”
But Pentecost, known colloquially as “the birthday of the Church,” represents more than an intellectual awakening. It was God fulfilling his promise. When Jesus said (John 15.26-27) that an “Advocate” would come from the Father “to testify on my behalf,” he wasn’t talking about a lawyer. It was the Holy Spirit, sent not just to touch minds, but to fill hearts.
The Good News was never just a history lesson, or a set of beliefs. It always was, and will always be, an encounter with the living God, through his disciples here on earth. Filled with the Spirit, no walls, or fears, or pandemics, can contain them.
Joseph Sinasac is Publishing Director at Novalis. He has been involved with religious communications for more than 40 years as an author, journalist, editor and TV and radio commentator on all things Catholic. He continues to be excited by the commitment and passion of the Catholics he meets in his daily work.