The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 3
An excerpt from Trinity: A story of deep delight by Anne Marie Mongoven, O.P.
On Pentecost Sunday Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to the followers of Jesus. There are two different passages in the New Testament that tell this story. One narrative is in John’s Gospel, the other in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Although John describes the coming of the Spirit in just two short verses, he depicts the disciples’ frame of mind as well as their behaviour both before and after the coming of the Spirit. These insights give us an understanding of the ways in which the early faith community responded to the Pentecostal event.
The Gospel of John, Chapter 20:1-23, tells how on the day we now call “Easter,” the followers of Jesus, both men and women, first learned of the empty tomb from Mary Magdalene. Mary went to Jesus’ tomb early on Sunday to anoint the body of Jesus. She discovered the empty tomb, and brought this information to Jesus’ followers who were already frightened. Their inability to resolve the problem of Jesus’ missing body was the beginning of a sequence of events in which fear grew among the disciples. They were frightened on Sunday morning, but by the end of that day they were fearless, preaching publicly and fervently of the death-resurrection of Jesus. What happened between the morning and evening on that day? John tells us that,
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
Luke, in Acts, tells of the coming of the Spirit in a slightly different way. The disciples were gathered in the upper room on the Jewish Pentecost Day.
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 rested 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. – Acts 2: 2-5
Both John and Luke describe the followers of Jesus as gathered together in fear and prayer. In John’s Gospel the risen Christ suddenly appears to them, breathes on them, and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In Luke’s account they are hidden in a house for fear of the Jews, and suddenly, with the sound of a violent wind and the appearance of tongues of fire, the Spirit comes to them. Transformed by the Spirit’s presence they lost their fear and went out to preach publicly. Through Jesus’ act of breathing upon them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Christ gave new life to his friends. It is the Holy Spirit who gave the disciples the new energy and the fire of love that led them to preach the Mystery of Jesus’ death-resurrection-glorification.
Jesus breathed and prayed over the disciples, giving them their mission. His gift takes two forms: first, in John, the act of breathing and the accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and second, in Acts, the noise of the wind, the sight of the fire, and the gift of tongues. Jesus gave the disciples new life, the life of the Holy Spirit. He also informed the disciples that the Father had sent him, and he, by giving the Holy Spirit to them, was sending them just as the Father had sent him. In this conversation Jesus acknowledges the presence of both the Father and Spirit with him and with them. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, Trinity embraced the disciples with divine love.
The Holy Spirit is the spirit of life, of energy, and of love. In John’s account, the Spirit sent by the Father through the Word brought a new life of love not only to individuals but to the community of believers as a whole. The life and love of Trinity entered into the disciples through the Spirit in a new way, and they no longer hid in fear. They went forth deliberately, inspired by the Spirit to bring the good news of Jesus to the world.
Luke’s story of the coming of the Holy Spirit is more detailed than John’s. In both, Jesus appears to the “disciples.” In Luke those present are the “disciples, women and men.” In both John and Acts, they are all hiding “for fear of the Jews.” In John, Jesus “breathed” on them. In Acts, the sound “like the rush of a violent wind swept through the whole house.”
In both John’s and Luke’s accounts of the Holy Spirit’s coming, wind and breath are signs of the Spirit’s presence. Luke emphasises the sound of the wind, perhaps because the sensory image of wind speaks strength and power. This sentence relates closely to the creation scene in the second verse of the Book of Genesis, where the author states, “the Earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters (Gn. 1:2). In new birth, it is wind, breeze, or breath – whatever you want to call it – that brings life.
In Acts, wind was the sign of renewed life coming to the Christian community, life that also came as tongues of fire, giving new speech and energy to the disciples. The power of the tongues of fire illustrates the power of the words of the preaching disciples. They moved from fear to confidence as powerful preachers of the Good News. Were John and Luke announcing the beginning of a new creation, or a new kingdom? In both stories Luke and John tell us that tremendous changes took place once the Holy Spirit came upon the community. In the “coming of the Spirit” narratives, John and Luke relate the story of the re-creation of the cosmos. At Pentecost the new age begins with the inauguration of the Church by the Spirit.
In Acts, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared with the wind, and a tongue of fire rested on each of the disciples.”. Then the disciples emerged from their hiding place and began preaching fearlessly the Good News of Jesus. People of every nation heard them speak, each in his or her own tongue. It was the Spirit behind the words spoken so enthusiastically that set the fire of love ablaze in both the preachers and their listeners.
When we, as Church, are at our best, we praise and glorify God through poetry or song, or story. All prayer is praise, but poetry carries the fullness of human love. Words of praise and glory are never just factual. Bare facts rarely communicate affection, reverence, and deep love. The Israelites knew this. They knew that the Genesis story began with images of strength and love. “In the beginning,” wrote the author, “when God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
The Pentecost story, like the creation story, is a love story. The Bible is full of love stories. The whole of the Hebrew Scriptures is the story of the steadfastness of God’s love for the Israelites, even when they are unfaithful. Individuals like David wrote love poems and songs in the psalms. Naomi loved Ruth. Jonathan loved David. In the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote love stories about Jesus. Paul handed over to his churches hymns of praise and love which Christians still sing today.