At Pentecost the Spirit came in tongues of fire – Why don’t they do that today?

Pentecost and Conversions

Last month I considered Pentecost and the transformation it brought about in the Apostles. It seems to me that I need to examine more closely what Pentecost did for the Apostles and how that relates to our own lives. We read of the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the Apostles and the roaring noise like a mighty wind. These were sure signs to the Apostles that something wonderful was occurring and that a great power was involved.

I have no such recollection of my confirmation. Did the Apostles get a stronger Holy Spirit than the one I received? That might seem to be a likely conclusion when we consider the effect it had on the Apostles. They went out into the streets to address the very people they had been hiding from. Not only did they face the Jews but they accused them of unlawfully killing Jesus and went on to proclaim the resurrection.

The striking thing in this episode was not just the new-found courage of the Apostles, but the fact that they were ‘speaking in tongues’. In the ‘Acts of The Apostles’ it says that each of the listeners heard them in his own language. It doesn’t say that the Apostles spoke different languages. When the Apostles spoke each of the hearers understood what they were saying. It is the understanding that is important and I will come back to that.

I suppose I didn’t need a tongue of fire and a mighty wind at my confirmation because I was not a hunted man, afraid for his life and unaware of the powers he had been given. Those signs at Pentecost proved to the Apostles that a greater power was at work in them and gave them the courage to proceed. When I was confirmed I was not in any danger and I had the power of the Universal Church to convince me that God is at work in the world.

It is of some concern, then, that many baptised and confirmed Catholics don’t seem to realise the power they have. They received the Holy Spirit and his gifts and seem thoroughly bored by the whole thing. The power to communicate to people of different languages is nothing to write home about in the age of the internet and Google Translate. You can write anything on your computer and have it instantly translated into almost any language for your audience. Who needs ‘speaking in tongues’?

Well, this is where I’d like to make a distinction between hearing and understanding. I had occasion to make use of Google Translate when I was in my Camino adventure a couple of years ago. I had chest pains and was consulting a doctor in A&E. The doctor spoke Spanish and I spoke English. She used the computer to translate. She typed the questions in Spanish and I was given five versions of what she said in English. I chose what I thought she asked and replied in English. The computer gave her five versions of what I might have said. I think you can see where I’m going. Before long I understood that I was not going to die but had no idea what was wrong with me.

How often have you gone to Mass and heard the readings recited as though they were a list of words to be pronounced with no regard for their meaning? Unless we are to understand what is being communicated we might as well not listen. This is at the heart of our current problem. In our Gospel we have the greatest story ever told. They even made a movie of that. In two thousand years we have managed to make that story boring.

This is the story that brought about the conversions the Apostles made of the very people who crucified Jesus. The implications of this story are such that we must re-evaluate what it means to be a human being and realise that each and every one of us is special. On that first day the Apostles converted about three thousand people. Why are we not having a similar effect on those who have drifted away from the Church?

It is easy for us to place the blame squarely on those who drift. We can console ourselves by claiming they have no sticking power. But, surely that is not the truth. If we were proclaiming the message properly, providing understanding, not just words, then I think the drift would be in the other direction. Now, don’t be alarmed. I’m not suggesting we all buy loudhailers and get out into the streets and start drowning out everything with the sound of the Gospel. It’s not the sound of the gospel we need to spread; it’s the message we have to broadcast.

I think it was as much the example of the Apostles getting out there and proclaiming the truth to a hostile crowd that won people over. By their behaviour they made people think that there must be something in this message worth listening to; just look how these men have been changed. I wonder if anyone looks at me and thinks that something powerful has changed me? If they don’t then I’m obviously not displaying the sort of behaviour in my life that would draw people to Christianity. After all, that is what Christians are for. I remember being taught in school that my task in this life is to save my soul. That is nonsense. Jesus did the saving. My job is to bring others to Jesus.

The wrong message is getting out there and it can’t all be blamed on an ill-informed press. Countless people have told me they don’t like the Church because it condemns gay people or divorced people or terrorists. To be clear, the role of the Church, that’s you and me, is not to condemn anyone; we are about bringing everyone to Christ. That was what the Apostles were doing. They were not condemning the Jews who crucified Christ; they were out in the streets bringing them back to Christ, baptising them and washing away their sins.

There are lots of ‘Christians’ out there condemning people and warning of a vengeful God. That’s not the God I know. The God I know is a loving God. He is the loving Father who watches patiently for the return of the prodigal son. Is that the God we are putting out there? Do we behave like Christ, quick to forgive and always ready to make peace or are we ready to fight? I look at my hands as I type this (I should really learn to touch type) and I’m thinking how a stranger sees my hands. Are they open, ready to shake hands or are they clenched, ready to make a fist?

We usually make a fist if we are afraid. We should take a leaf out of the Apostles’ book and throw off the fear and meet people with confidence. If we put our trust in the Holy Spirit we will always find the right thing to say to put people at their ease and show them the true face of the Church, the face of the Merciful Christ.

Joseph McGrath

Why are people bored by the Church? Do you care?

Why are so many people turning away from church? Some say it’s boring. Should priests take up juggling or magic tricks? My column is out today in the Scottish Catholic Observer. Read what I have to say. Full text will be here next week if you can’t be bothered to buy it.

Apathy is not what it used to be.

The Morning After – Full Text

This article appeared last weekend in the Scottish Catholic Observer. The full text is here for those who missed the publication.

Now Easter is behind us, Jesus is risen and all is well with the world. I imagined what that first Easter was like. The followers of Jesus can happily go about spreading the word of the good news to the world. Well, that’s perhaps what we might expect but it was far from the truth. For a start the resurrection was a bit of a mystery to the apostles. The tomb was empty and there were strange stories of angels talking to people but what did it all mean? The apostles were waiting to be arrested. They were at a loss as to what they should do next.

Even the Jewish authorities were confused. They had a report from the guards at the tomb. The tomb was empty and an angel had appeared. According to Matthew, the Jewish elders paid the guards to say that the followers of Jesus had stolen the body away in the night. The confusion of the time seems to be carried forward in the Gospels. Matthew says that Jesus came to meet the women who had first come to the tomb. In Mark’s version the women went away saying nothing because they were afraid and Jesus appeared to Mary of Magdala later. Luke does not mention Jesus appearing to any of the women. John’s account is more detailed. He says that John and Peter went into the tomb first and saw an empty tomb. Later Mary of Magdala went in and saw two angels and then Jesus appeared to her.

If we think about the trauma the apostles had come through in just a few days and probably had little sleep in that time then the confusion and uncertainty they experienced seems reasonable. In short they felt lost and had no understanding of what had just happened. Far from being ready to spread the good news, they were intent on hiding and avoiding imprisonment.

It is interesting that Jesus chose to appear to Mary of Magdala first. There is no mention of Jesus appearing to his mother Mary. I wonder if he did. If I was a betting man I would put money on it. However, he did not appear to the apostles immediately. That day, we learn, two followers were on their way home to Emmaus and met a man on the road. It was Jesus although they did not recognise him. He explained the whole story, starting with Moses and pointed out the scriptural reference to the Messiah. It was only when they took him home with them and he broke bread with them that the suddenly recognised him and he vanished from their sight.

These two disciples went straight back to Jerusalem to report to the apostles. By this time the apostles knew that Christ had definitely risen from the dead. I find this story significant because of the passage;

“they had recognised him at the breaking of bread”

Luke 24:35

There seems to be a message for us here. If we want to find Jesus them we can do so at the ‘breaking of bread’, in the Eucharist. We live in a time in the western world where attendance at mass has fallen and fewer Catholics are receiving the Eucharist. When I made my first communion we had to fast from midnight before going to communion. The opportunities for receiving communion have increased since those days because the Church recognises the importance of giving us the opportunity to meet Christ frequently.

Jesus appeared to the apostles on a number of occasions. We read of Jesus coming to the apostles in their closed room when Thomas was not there and how Thomas doubted what the others told him. Jesus later came back to show Thomas the holes in his hands and his feet. Thomas thus earned the name ‘Doubting Thomas’. That’s all we hear about Thomas in the gospels but a few years ago I was in India and visited the basilica of Saint Thomas in Chennai. The church is built over the tomb of Thomas who was killed there. The spear head that killed him is on show. So, despite having doubted, Thomas went on to spread the good news to distant people.

When Jesus visited the apostles he breathed the Holy Spirit into them and gave them their mission and the power to forgive sins. Their mission was to spread the word of the gospel to all people. That is the mission of the Church and is as vital and as valid today as it was in those early days.

The apostles were still afraid. They had received the Holy Spirit but were still confused and didn’t really understand what they were being called to do. They were just ordinary working men. They never expected to be given such responsibility. How could they possibly be expected to go out to a hostile world and convert the people? It never really struck me that they were just like me. They had been chosen by Jesus himself and had been given the power of the Spirit but did not realise what they had. I wonder if we, baptised Christians, realise the power the Spirit gives to us.

Things changed at Pentecost. We can all recall the image of the apostles, gathered in a closed room, and suddenly a noise filed the whole house and something like tongues of fire came to rest on them. What could be more dramatic? The apostles were suddenly empowered and went out and began to speak to the crowds in Jerusalem. Everyone listening heard them in their own language.

That must have seemed incredible then. Even now we can’t comprehend such a thing. I have always rationalised this. These men were special. They had been given special powers. God can’t expect such things from believers today, surely? But He does.

The apostles didn’t receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They had already received the Spirit from Jesus. At Pentecost the Spirit activated them. He gave them the gifts they needed to perform the specific tasks they were set. What can that mean for us today? We received the Holy Spirit at Baptism and at Confirmation. We are expected to play our part in spreading the good news of the Gospel.

We sometimes feel that we are in a world that is hostile to our values and that it might be wiser to keep a low profile, hide our faith. The world the apostles found themselves in was far more hostile than our world today as we will see later. Will the Holy Spirit give each of us the power and strength he gave the apostles? When we look around us we see examples of people here who are willing to stand up for the values of their faith even though it might mean they will lose their job or face prosecution. In the Middle East we see people who are ready to give up their lives, facing barbaric treatment rather than deny their faith. Where do they get the strength to do that?

It seems to me that The Holy Spirit is the source of these things. When we need to stand up for our faith in what we say or in how we behave then we can call on the Spirit for all we need. There are plenty of devotional prayers to Jesus, Mary and favourite saints but the Holy Spirit is often forgotten. I think I’ll make a point of directing my prayers to the Paraclete when I find my faith waning. Perhaps if we all did then the Church would grow stronger.

Joseph McGrath