One of the strangest stories in the whole New Testament gives rise to the Christian feast known as Pentecost. The dramatic tale comes near the beginning the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-12), the book recounting what happened to the disciples after Jesus’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. The disciples are gathered in a house in Jerusalem, shortly after the “Ascension,” when the Risen Christ was taken up bodily into heaven.
Needless to say, they are both excited (Christ is risen!) and confused (Now what?).
Suddenly there is a great rushing of wind through the house, and “divided tongues, as of fire,” appear above their heads, and a “tongue rested on each of them.” As if this weren’t enough, they are suddenly given the ability to speak in foreign languages.
In the city at the time, says the author of Acts, were Jews “from every nation.” They were astonished at how these people had suddenly mastered new languages. “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?” they ask. “And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”
Some marvel. Others, not surprisingly, are skeptical. They’re drunk on new wine, someone suggests.
Christians believe that the disciples were not inebriated but were, rather, receiving an unusual gift from the Holy Spirit. (Fire and wind are traditional ways that the Spirit is portrayed. Think of God appearing in the “burning bush” before Moses. Or Jesus speaking of the Spirit as a wind that “blows wherever it pleases.”)
For modern-day non-believers, this episode might seem impossible to understand, or even picture. (On the other hand, “speaking in tongues” is a phenomenon known today, particularly in those churches that take their name from the feast: Pentecostals.)
So how are thoughtful believers to understand these strange stories? Well, perhaps those present had a hard time describing what happened and used the image of the tongues of flame as the best way to communicate an incommunicable spiritual experience. (Sometimes the most profound religious experiences are difficult to put into words, and you search in vain for a good metaphor or analogy or image.) Or perhaps it happened exactly the way it’s described in Acts: frankly, if God can create the world from nothing and raise his son from the dead, then some wind and fire seem relatively easy.
However it happened, it seems clear that the early Christians were given a dramatic gift that emboldened the church to spread the “Good News” beyond the familiar boundaries of Galilee and Judea.
Pentecost (after the Greek word for “fifty,” the number of days after Easter) is typically called the “birth of the church,” which may seem counterintuitive. Why wouldn’t the birth of the church be Christmas, when Jesus was born?
But there is an important insight at work: the church truly begins when the Holy Spirit helps the disciples to spread the Gospel beyond their comfort zones. Beyond the cozy confines of the men and women who knew Jesus during his time on earth. The “Christians” (they weren’t yet known by that name) move from remembering Jesus to preaching about him, and inviting others to know him. It is also the time that the Holy Spirit inspired (in a literal sense—to have the Spirit placed in a person) the disciples to go out “to the ends of the earth,” as Jesus had asked them.
There aren’t many special rituals associated with Pentecost. In some churches in ancient times (and in some today) this is the day for adult baptisms. That’s the origin of the old term “Whitsunday,” when the newly baptized wore white robes. In Catholic churches, priests wear red vestments on Pentecost Sunday, to commemorate the appearance of the fire and to remind their parishioners that whether or not you’re any good with foreign languages, you should be on fire with the love of God.