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Burning Question

This is the last Sunday of Easter season.

Its Mass is vivid.

Suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.

Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim (First Reading).

Wouldn’t we have loved to be there? How thrilling!

When we receive baptism and other sacraments, we are receiving the Holy Spirit, quietly and in ritual form.
But let us look at the wording. The noise was not an actual wind but something “like” a wind. And these were not tongues of fire, but tongues “as of fire” (i.e., “as if they were made of fire”). They were discussing marvels that could not be described as is, so they used metaphors.

What if we tried a literal description:

There was this sound that came from the sky, something that sounded like, uh, oh, let’s see, uh, wind! That’s it. It wasn’t wind but that is the closest I can get. And then stuff that looked sort of like chunks of fire, or maybe tongues made out of fire. Only it wasn’t really fire. Or tongues either. Oh, I can’t describe it.

They were experiencing a presence that cannot truly be written down. Obviously it was something very real but too deep for words. So they resorted to metaphor.

Are we allowed to prophesy and talk in tongues as the apostles did?* St. Paul handles this question beautifully in the Second Reading. The answer is found by recalling who the Holy Spirit is (the reader and I have been doing this in previous weeks). The Holy Spirit is completely and truly God, the third person of the Holy Trinity come to dwell within us.

No wonder it is hard to talk about!

In our time the bestowal of the Spirit is less dramatic. There has been a regularization and it has been gradual. Look, for instance, at Acts 19:1-8, in which St. Paul came upon a dozen or so disciples who had never even heard of the Holy Spirit! He baptized them, and as he “laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” Was this the beginning of the sacrament of Baptism? When we receive baptism and other sacraments, we are receiving the Holy Spirit, quietly and in ritual form. Christ and his Father come to dwell within us.

Let us ask again, as we have in previous weeks, why do you and I not act as someone who has God within us?

Well, like anything planted so deep, the Spirit's presence must have time to make its way into our actions, our words, our deeds. Whenever we find patches of charity or joy in ourselves, or patience and kindness, or the ability to endure hardship and injuries, when we are drawn toward mildness and modesty, then we can surely know that the Holy Spirit is at work.

No, it is not heavy winds and tongues of fire, as in former days. But it is the same Spirit of Jesus and of the Father that has been bestowed throughout history.

Can we open to it?

John Foley, SJ

 * For people in charismatic movements there is the “slaying in the Spirit,” and also what St. Paul called “glossolalia,” or speaking in tongue. This is a dramatic experience, but not present to the majority of Church members..

You are invited to email a note to the author of this reflection:
Fr. John Foley, SJ

Fr. John Foley, SJ, is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go