“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. . .”*
The Pentecost feast-day reading from Acts (2:1-21) is absolutely galvanized with spiritual energy, isn’t it? It radiates with the brightness of faith coming into being in an extraordinary mystical experience including the whole community gathered in prayer; so that, in the words of Romanos’ Kontakion for Pentecost: “they glorified the All-Holy Spirit” (E. Lash, trans. 1995, 207). This abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit, revealed to us in Scripture, is a foundational treasure of Orthodox Christianity. It is the Holy Spirit who is leading us through the Liturgy, who gave courage to the early men and women martyrs, who guided the Ecumenical Councils, and who defined the Canon of Holy Scripture.
We are fortunate that the Acts of the Apostles was crafted so soon after the events it describes. While it is a story involving a whole panorama of remembered characters and beloved episodes contributing to the seeding and growth of the Primitive Church, it is the action of God—the living divinity of God we know as the Holy Spirit—which is most urgently, most excellently portrayed here. “It is no exaggeration to conclude that Early Christians looked upon the Holy Spirit as the chief external witness to the presence of Christ’s reign” (J.T. Koenig, Charismata: God’s Gifts for God’s People, 1978, 73). In fact, Acts might better be titled “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit.”
Today, you and I are able to look back, as praying members of this part of the Body of Christ, and we can see now that people’s faith is integral to the fabric of the story of the Early Church. So, in its early days, as the Jesus movement was spreading toward Antioch (Acts 11:26), Luke reminds us again and again that, even before the word “Christian” came to characterize followers of Jesus, they were called “believers”—for their faith. (Acts 2:44, 4:32, 10:45) Therefore, an important facet of Luke’s contribution to Scripture in this, the Birth Narrative of the Church, is his magisterial portrayal of: “the All-Holy Spirit of God.”
The power and promise of the Holy Spirit are announced in the very first verses of Acts (1:2, 1:5), and beautifully described in the Pentecost story, and throughout the entire book of Scripture. The All-Holy Spirit is the living presence, the spiritual strength of Jesus Christ in the lives of those who believe. So, we hear of believers being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4); and the Pentecost story recognizes the overwhelmingly dynamic life of the Spirit in each believer’s personal experience. Depending on the translation, there are about sixty references to the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles. Followers are “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” Ministry is the “gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is the personal presence of the Lord to his disciples; therefore, invoking in prayer the presence of Jesus and the presence of God’s Spirit go hand in hand. When the Apostles are recorded in Acts performing miracles, they are done by the power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ. (3:6; 4:10: 9:34) As you can see, then, the action of God in the All-Holy Spirit keeps the Resurrected Christ at the center of the Redemption story of the emerging Church.
On the day of Pentecost the experience of the Holy Spirit must have been so electrifying that, after the Resurrection itself, in some ways it feels like the climax of the Church Year. This first dazzling outpouring of the Spirit in collective Christian memory is one of the most celebrated and influential narrative descriptions in all the New Testament. “With a few deft strokes, he paints a riveting scene” (J.D.G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 2009, 146). The text describes a cosmopolitan crowd coming from far and wide to participate in the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which comes fifty days after Passover. They all witness the Holy Spirit sweeping in among the disciples of Jesus; so that outwardly, it fills “the entire house where they were sitting,” just as inwardly it fills them to the depths of their souls. And they are “astonished” by what they hear and by what they see. There is a tremendous storm sound: “like the rush of a violent wind” (2:2). And a flame-like vision: “tongues…of fire” (2:3). And the inspired words being proclaimed are understood by all in a divine gift of praise and familiarity.
The Evangelist Luke, our master story-teller, is describing a profoundly spiritual, certainly even mystical phenomenon, an action of God on earth in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And people who were there witnessing it remembered it in different ways. But something life-changing definitely happened, and we can be inspired as well as we meditate on this story in Scripture.
It is artistically depicted above by Duccio (Maesta Altarpiece of Siena, 1308) and below by El Greco (Pentecostés, ca. 1660). Many remembered the sound of a vast wind blowing. And some saw something like fire licking up in flames near each disciple, as if they were on fire; for the Holy Spirit was igniting and strengthening faith, sweeping across people like a wild fire in its dynamic power. Our Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem, teaches that this fire “gives luster to the soul. And this is now coming upon you also, to strip away and consume your sins, and to brighten yet more that precious possession of your soul, and to give you grace; for he gave it then to the Apostles” (Catechetical Lectures 17:15, NPNF2.07, 249).
Now remember, earlier in the Gospel of Luke, when John the Baptist preached his Messianic outcry that the One who was to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (3:15-18) So now, the tongues of flame they witnessed at Pentecost signified for them the divine presence and surely the prophecy was being fulfilled for them before their very eyes. The rushing sound of the wind, too, spoke of the power of the divine Spirit which blows where it wishes. Remember, too, that when we heard in the Old Testament that the Prophet Ezekiel was commanded by the voice of God to “Prophesy to the wind!” and charge it to blow down on the dried-up bodies in his desert vision (Ezek. 37:9-14), we all knew it was the Breath of God breathing into those dry bones and filling them with new life. So, here it is—here is Ezekiel’s prophecy being fulfilled at Pentecost.
People remembered that the wind sound was so tremendous that the disciples knew it came from Heaven, and so loud that it immediately drew a crowd all around the house there in Jerusalem. Now, this gathered multitude did not understand the heavenly sign at first, and were bewildered. But it was indeed the formidable presence of the Lord, the Lord who can “ride on the wings of the wind,” just as in Psalm 104:3. Romanos the Melodist describes this, too:
The wise Apostles, thinking the whole upper room
was collapsing under the wind, all shut their eyes in fear.
And then, something more fearful came to pass
and wonder succeeding wonder was added…
to purify and cleanse he had sent them on before him,
the All-Holy Spirit.
And what of “speaking in tongues”? Much has been made of this curious aspect of the Pentecost experience, hasn’t it? So, it may be helpful to look at it from a different camera angle to better understand it. Again, some amazing inner experience is being remembered and again, it is being described as an outward and visible phenomenon. Indeed, what may be most amazing about it is, not that foreign tongues were spoken, but that the message was heard as familiar praise and thanksgiving to people from different language traditions and different faiths. Non-Jewish believers heard it as well. So, the Pentecost message from the Lord, in the midst of the wind and fire, was miraculous because it was heard and understood as familiar. The Word of God sounded like our own fathers, like our own grandmas, our own Bishop, whether that means Russian or Korean, Greek or Hebrew, or some fancy Cappadocian dialect. The miracle of the Holy Spirit was not only that the disciples spoke strangely, but that visitors of different tongues and dialects heard and understood. And if them, then you. You could have heard and understood the Holy Spirit streaming in on that day. And it was “amazing.” The experience of the Spirit of God at Pentecost was reported to be noisy like a storm in some spiritual way, and fiery in some mystical flaming way—and most of all, it was received as joyously familiar.
The most important aspect, then, of speaking in tongues is not so much its strangeness, but its message. All the words of divine ecstatic praise were immediately recognizable to many of the international pilgrims. And what was the message? The people heard and recognized the mighty deeds of the Lord. The Medes and the Parthians and the Cappadocians, even the Egyptians and the Arabs, all heard “God’s deeds of power” in Jesus Christ proclaimed. (2:11) But some of those gathered still doubted, and in response to a joking remark from the crowd of pilgrims, Peter rises up as the spokesperson for the Apostles and preaches the first Christian sermon. And in it, my dear people, the Holy Spirit enables all who are present to hear a new meaning in the Hebrew Scripture, and to see new signs in it about Jesus Christ as the Messiah. And they receive guidance from the Spirit to carry on, and they find themselves divinely energized to repent and be baptized. So, the All-Holy Spirit works “witnessing to Christ by empowering and inspiring the preaching of the Gospel and by reproducing Jesus’ own works of power.” (G.W.H. Lampe, God as Spirit, 1977, p. 65)
So, now, my friends, whenever you hear readings in church from the Acts of the Apostles, listen for the Holy Spirit, the breath of God. Hear Scripture revealing to you how the Spirit of the Lord inspires and guides the Church; for it has planted the seeds of faith in the hearts of the community of new believers throughout the world. And now, if you are, in your prayer life, sensitive and receptive to the All-Holy Spirit of God, you can expect it to charge and assign you to works of ministry. If you listen for the Spirit, it will send you out to do the work of God. As Romanos prays for us:
Beloved, let us sing the praise of the tongues of the disciples
because, not with elegant words,
but with divine power they caught all mortals in their nets,
because they took up His Cross like a rod,
drawing out to life those who honor and glorify
the All-Holy Spirit.
*Acts 2:1-2. This meditation is dedicated with thanksgiving to Metropolitan Hilarion.
V.K. McCarty is an Anglican theologian who lectures at General Theological Seminary and writes for the Institute for Studies in Eastern Christianity. Her new book, From Their Lips: Voices of Early Christian Women, is available from Gorgias Press.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.