Click here if you don’t see subscription options
A painting of Pentecost in Saint Anastasia church in VeronaA painting of Pentecost in Saint Anastasia church in Verona. (iStock)

Pentecost, meaning fifty in Greek, is an extraordinary memorial. The Greek name, little used today, for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, “the Feast of Weeks,” recalls the presence of God coming down in fire on Mount Sinai on the day the Torah was given (Ex 19:18). It is also the name of the Christian solemnity on which the Spirit descended like “tongues of fire” on the early community of faith. The Holy Spirit “speaks” to all peoples in their own tongue. It might be helpful to reflect on one unique symbol of the Spirit among the many present in the biblical tradition.

And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. (Acts 2:2)

Liturgical day
Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-11, Ps 104, 1 Cor 12:3-13, Jn 20:19-23

Can you recall a time you heard the sound of the Spirit speaking through another person?

Can you list any distractions that keep you from hearing the Spirit?

What does the Church of tomorrow need to hear today?


In today’s first reading from Acts of the Apostles, two verses provide an array of descriptions for the Spirit of God. “Suddenly,” the author writes, “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” (Acts 2:2-3). Fire and wind remain familiar images of the Spirit even today. These images have a long biblical pedigree. Fire appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and a mighty wind swept over the waters of creation and became the breath God breathed into Adam and Eve, the first human lives.

There is another lesser-known image that describes the Spirit as a “noise” and is perhaps far more significant for discipleship than fire and wind. The elements of fire and wind bring to mind the beauty and power of the natural world used to communicate the presence of God. A “sound” has the advantage to allow the divine to communicate directly in speech. One must receive the sound, be open to hear the sound and believe that the source of this sound comes from the Spirit. 

When the sound becomes speech, as in today’s first reading, divine communication flows among humanity unhindered.

When the sound becomes speech, as in today’s first reading, divine communication flows among humanity unhindered. We must listen to each other to hear the sound of the Spirit. The timing of the feast day was a perfect opportunity for the Spirit’s voice to break through. Pentecost is a time of pilgrimage to the Holy City, and Jews from around the world had gathered with a desire to be close to Jerusalem. “At this sound,” reads the passage for this Sunday, “they gathered in a large crowd… each one hearing them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6). All those gathered on that first Pentecost of the Spirit recognized that the community of faith was praising God. That they spoke different languages did not play a factor in hearing one Spirit speak. 

The idea that the presence of God manifests through sound and speech stands within a long biblical and mystical tradition. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light,” reads the Genesis creation narrative (Gen 1:3). Recall the opening line from the Gospel of John, which can be translated, “In the beginning the Word already existed” (Jn 1:1). The tradition of divine speech and Word as the in-breaking of the God’s Spirit at work in the world is firmly set within the tradition of Scripture.

A genuine concern for the church of tomorrow is the capacity to hear the sound of the Spirit speaking today. It might be worthwhile to reflect on all the distractions that keep us from hearing the Spirit’s echo in our lives.  A reflection on the distractions that contribute to this “hearing loss” is a worthwhile examination. But even if we do not do such a reflection, God will find a way to get our attention. Even though the disciples, for example, had locked themselves in a room, the resurrected Jesus found a way to break into it. But it was not Jesus’ apparition that promoted courage, it was the sound of his greeting given twice, “Peace be with you” (Jn 20:19-23).

The latest from america

Statue of Mary wearing a crown
May 21, 2023, The Ascension of the Lord: The narratives of ascension and enthronement in this Sunday’s readings subvert human fantasies of strength and instead present a theology of divine power that flows from vulnerability. 
two hands outstretched in prayer
May 14, 2023, the Sixth Sunday of Easter: The fourth Gospel leans into the personal affection between God and the individual.
Close up of hand on coffin
May 7, 2023, the Fifth Sunday of Easter: Anyone who attends funerals often knows how storytelling reveals the life of the deceased. The stories of everyday life that mourners share frequently provide more insight into the deceased’s character than any listing of life accomplishments or
A man standing on top of a hill next to a herd of sheep
April 30, 2023, the Fourth Sunday of Easter: This passage is the result of multiple stages of editing as, over time, the fourth Gospel took its final form. Each of those stages reflects new pastoral concerns within the growing church. The resulting “shepherd” metaphor is therefore quite
Victor Cancino, S.J.April 26, 2023