The day will come when, after harnessing the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of Love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, [humankind] will have discovered fire.” So wrote Teilhard de Chardin in his book Toward the Future. Properly speaking, human beings did not discover fire. We know from cosmologists that fire is at the very center of our universe, which burst forth some 15 billion years ago in a great burning explosion of light. What human beings did discover in the Early Stone Age was how to control fire for heating, cooking and many other uses. Teilhard’s likening our ability to harness the forces of love to that of controlling fire for good purposes taps into one of the metaphors used by Luke in today’s first reading.
In the Acts of the Apostles, the metaphor of tongues of fire is used to describe the divine power unleashed in the disciples at Pentecost. Although some Christian artwork depicts this literally, with little flames hovering over the heads of the disciples, Luke is clearly using symbolic language that evokes the same earth-shattering experience of the Holy One by the Israelites at Sinai. Moses had brought the whole of the twelve tribes to the foot of the mountain to encounter God. The mountain was then “wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire” and “the whole mountain shook violently” (Ex 19:18).
So, too, at Pentecost, the whole entourage of Jesus’ followers was gathered together in one place, including the eleven, Jesus’ mother and siblings and the Galilean women (Acts 1:14). The believers numbered 120 persons (Acts 1:15), a symbolic number for the full people. A strong driving wind fills the house, much as the mighty wind that swept over the chaotic waters at creation (Gn 1:2). The wind and fire are symbols evocative of re-creation, not only on a personal level, emboldening frightened followers, but also signaling a rebirth on a cosmic scale that will result from their mission to ignite Christ’s love everywhere.
Images of rebirth are strong in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul speaks about the groaning of the whole of creation, still in the throes of labor, as God’s work of birthing new life continues unceasingly. He speaks also of how our groaning joins that of the cosmos as we experience the pangs of redemption and hope coming to fruition through the Spirit’s movement in and through us. Paul affirms that the Spirit herself echoes these inexpressible groanings, as she acts as a midwife, drawing forth the new life longing to emerge.
What is notable about the image of birthing that Paul uses to speak about the unleashing of the power of the Spirit is that it concurs with the direction in which the power of the cosmos moves. The movement of birth from inside the womb outward to life in the world mirrors the dynamic of the universe that is ever expanding, exploding with life from the center outward, in gorgeously creative, chaotic, irreplicable patterns. Pentecost, then, is not so much about the power of God coming from outside us down onto us but a releasing of the power that is already within us, breathed into us by God at creation (Gn 2:7) and by the risen Christ still among us (Jn 20:22). As the Gospel affirms, it is particularly through acts of forgiveness that we can harness for God the energies of love, setting a contagious fire for the re-creation that is groaning to emerge.