Tongues of Fire
Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples, his mother and a group of women, had gathered in the upper room for prayer when a loud noise was heard and the Holy Spirit descended on each of them in tongues of fire ( Acts 2:1-11). Emboldened by the power of the Holy Spirit, they left the place where they were staying and began to preach fearlessly, in every language spoken at that time, about Jesus and the kingdom of God. The church was born on that Pentecost day with all the freshness, energy, enthusiasm and love of new birth.
Today, centuries later, believers long for a rebirth of that vibrant, inclusive church. The scandal of child sexual abuse, with its cover-up by ecclesiastical authorities, has rocked the church to its core. Many people, especially the young, have left the church or have withdrawn in shame from public debate. Others have retreated into gated communities to better protect their members from the evils of a secular age. And in it all, people ask, “Where is the Holy Spirit?”
We have witnessed our own tongues of fire recently. The flames, that engulfed the roof and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral, in Paris, during Holy Week this year, caused us to watch in horror as a centuries old Christian icon was reduced to a charred ruin. This vision of a church in flames, rather than being a symbol of the cataclysmic apocalypse that was prophesied to bring about the end of the world, might be understood to be rather a symbol of a certain model of the church being purged by the Holy Spirit – the model of an institution, trapped in a worldly spirituality favouring power, prestige and respectability over humility and lowly service, being cauterized of its hypocrisy.
The Holy Spirit is guiding us in this time of crisis just as he did the early disciples. He speaks to us through our fearless leader, Pope Francis, who said during the Easter Vigil, “To return to a lively love of the Lord is essential. Otherwise, ours is a ‘museum’ faith, not an ‘Easter’ faith.” Just as the Holy Spirit led those assembled in the upper room to understand that they had to go out to tell the world the good news about Jesus, the Holy Spirit has led Pope Francis to understand that we cannot be rooted authentically in our Christian identity without being in dialogue with the world – all of the world. On another occasion Pope Francis said, “It hurts the heart, when, before a church, before a humanity with so many wounds of war….Christians begin to do philosophical, theological, spiritual ‘byzantinism.’ Rather, what is needed is a spirituality of going out. Go out with this spirituality….do not remain securely locked inside. This is not good…….we must go out.”
After Pentecost, the first disciples went out from their safe haven to preach about the reign of God. Empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit, we, too, must go out to bring God’s compassion into the world; to build a more just world, beginning with the most neglected. Let us not be afraid of the task on hand. We have Jesus’ words of reassurance, in John 14:26 “……. but your Advocate , the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will call to mind all that I have taught you.”
Maeve Mc Mahon O.P.