What would Pentecost’s tongues of fire have us say?

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is Pentecost which has been described as ‘the second greatest feast of the year, and its octave [1] has precisely the same rank and privilege as are attached to that of Easter.’ [2] Is that how you see it? I know we follow the liturgical traditions of the feast – with set readings from Scripture along with appropriate hymns such as Laus Deo which we have just sung and our closing hymn for this evening Veni Sancte Spiritus. Then there is that apposite line from the final verse of our Anthem tonight (Te Deum):

O Lord, let thy mercy lighten upon us: as our trust is in thee.

To our liturgical traditions we have also developed the practice of other symbols – such as the wearing of red; indeed, I am wearing red socks tonight as my contribution to our Pentecost festivity.

Through history there have been various other festive practices associated with Pentecost. In the Middle Ages, it was the custom in St Pauls in London for a great censer to be swung from the ceiling after which doves would be released ‘re-enacting the descent of the Holy Ghost on the Apostles’. [3] Puritan reformers have been blamed for putting an end to this practice, though I am inclined to think that the congregation of St Pauls were as much worried about the ‘blessing’ of droppings than they were appreciative of the avian symbol of the Holy Spirit’s descent.

Pentecost festivities have taken other turns through time and place as well. Reflecting the harvest theme of Shavuot, the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which was the occasion which the disciples were celebrating (vide Acts 2:1), Pentecost in Austria and Germany was celebrated with the tradition of Laubmännchen (Green Boy) where children were wrapped in flowers and green garlands and proceeded from house to house with music, free beer and food.

While in the northwest of England, the week after Pentecost saw Whitfairs, parades with brass brands and choirs with all the girls dressed in white – not red. The Pentecost feast, also known as Whitsunday, historically was associated with the colour white as much as it has been with red. The very term Whitsunday is a simplification of the term White Sunday. Not that there haven’t been other interpretations of the term. A C14 Augustinian monk, John Mirk, in his C15 Book of Festivals wrote:

Goode men and woymen, as ȝe knowen wele all, þys day ys called Whitsonday, for bycause þat þe Holy Gost as þys day broȝt wyt and wysdome ynto all Cristes dyscyples. [4]

‘Because that the Holy Ghost has this day brough wit and wisdom unto all Christ’s disciples’ so said the monk. However, Walter Skeat, the famed etymologist was withering about this assertion that Whitsunday had more to do with wit than white when he wrote in his dictionary:

White Sunday … was early corrupted into Wit-Sunday, proving that white was soon misunderstood, and was wrongly supposed to be wit or wisdom conferred by the Holy Ghost … on which theme it was easy for the preacher (to whom etymology was no object) to expatiate. [5]

Skeat effectively corrected that misinterpretation of Whitsunday – the name had nothing to do with the gifting of wit and wisdom to believers. Yet our reading from 1 Corinthians this evening suggested that Paul did believe in the concepts of gifts bestowed upon us:

Now concerning the spiritual gifts … I do not want you to be uninformed … there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit … To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit … to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. [1 Cor 12:1, 4, 8, 10b]

Paul’s references to the gift of wisdom along with the use and interpretation of tongues sounds like what might have been his interpretation of the events which took place during that first post-Resurrection Festival of Weeks as Shavuot translates as. Let’s recall what we were told took place that day, according to the Acts of the Apostles:

When the day of Pentecost came … suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. [Acts 2: 1-4]

What was and is the significance of Pentecost? To understand this ‘second greatest feast of the year’, I propose that we look at three juxtapositions between the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. For the first, we need to understand that Shavuot was not just a harvest festival, more importantly, it was a commemoration of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God – in other words the gifting of the Law to humanity (read Exodus 19:3-20:17). This is the first juxtaposition and involved a paradigmatic upending just as Jesus had done with his changing of the purpose of the Paschal meal from a commemoration of God’s deliverance of His people from slavery through to our celebrating communion in adherence to Jesus’ dictum of ‘do this in remembrance of me’.

The second juxtaposition is with Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story, multilingualism became a curse, a punishment rather than a blessing. The event of Acts 2, however, not only upended that but, more significantly, transcended language to the extent that comprehension was no longer dependent but now independent of any specific language.

The third juxtaposition focusses on the reporting of the descent of the ‘tongues of fire’. Compare what was reported in Acts 2 with Isaiah 6:6-9:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us? And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ He said, ‘Go tell this people.’

In both instances a tongue of fire was bestowed and speaking by the recipients was the result. But two significant differences should be apparent to us in both these. In the first, Isaiah told of one person receiving the gift of prophecy, while in Acts, all the believers received the power to speak. Walter Rauschenbusch referred to this as ‘the Democracy of the Spirit’ writing:

The Spirit who gave Daniel his wisdom, and Isaiah his eloquence, and Jeremiah his tenacity, and Amos his holy indignation, can equip us with power, even you and me, for there is no exception. [6]

 Secondly, in the comparison of the Holy Spirits flaming gift of speech, in Isaiah, the words he was instructed to speak were of doom and that he was to keep speaking them:

Until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. [6:12]

In Acts, however, when asked ‘what does this mean? [Acts 2:12], Peter explained that it would lead to:

The coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. [Acts 2:20b-21]

Thus, just as Jesus upended the significance of the Paschal meal, so too did the Holy Spirit, by its descent that Pentecost day, alter our understanding from being the receipt of divine law through to empowerment by the Holy Spirit.

At the very least, this is what we celebrate each year at the Feast of Pentecost; as we will sing shortly:

Come, thou Holy Spirit, come/ and from thy celestial home/ shed a ray of light divine.

Wonderful, comforting words which will rightly thrill us. But let us not miss the intent of the later verses of that hymn; in particular, verse 4:

… our strength renew;/ on our dryness pour thy dew;/ wash the stains of guilt away/ bend the stubborn heart and will/ melt the frozen, warm the chill/ guide the steps that go astray.

In these words, we may find a contemporary power to Pentecost, a call to us to be renewed, for our steps to be guided away from straying. The words invite us to consider, therefore, what Pentecost means for us, other than simply commemorating, by liturgy and red socks, a miraculous and ecstatic occasion two thousand years. Each of us must now look for the significance to be drawn by each of us from Pentecost. Let me share the significance which occurred to the poet T S Eliot at Pentecost in 1942.

That year, in the wake of the Blitz, Eliot wrote the final section of his Four Quartets, entitled Little Gidding, after an Anglican congregation near London. In his poem he reflected upon the stark contrast between the literal descent of flames through bombs with the figurative descent of the flames of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He wrote:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

These words from Eliot’s take on the impact of Pentecost for him in the midst of the darkness of spirit of World War II have been noted by many such as the evangelist Leighton Ford who highlighted the last couplet: [7]

We only live, only suspire/ consumed by either fire or fire.

I agree with his conclusion which is essentially that each of us has to decide whether we yield to the fire of this earth’s brokenness or seek the fire of the Holy Spirit. Yet that conclusion remains too easy, becoming something of a slogan if we overlook what T S Eliot went on to write in the next stanzas of Little Gidding. This is part of what he wrote:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Eliot then links this to the very words we speak:

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning.

Pentecost brought to the disciples a new capacity for divinely-inspired speech; Eliot proffered that, in the midst of the language of hate to which the Blitz gave expression, there was another language we are called to speak. He finished his poem with a beacon of hope if we shall but choose to speak this other language different to the world’s. He wrote:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

This Pentecost do we seek to in-fold in our own speech, our own thoughts, our own selves the tongues of flame offered by the Holy Spirit or will we yield to the flames of hate of the world’s speech?

[1] ‘Octave’ in this sense refers to the eight-day period leading up to the Feast of Pentecost.

[2] Lamburn E C R et al (eds) Ritual Notes: A comprehensive guide to the Rites and Ceremonies of the Book of Common Prayer, 1964, pp299-300

[3] Duffy E, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, 1992, pp459-460

[4] Whitsun – Wikipedia

[5] Skeat W E, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, 1959, p713

[6] Rauschebusch W, Selected Writings, 1985, p100

[7] On Pentecost Sunday – Leighton reflects on a T.S. Eliot poem – Leighton Ford Ministries