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PENTECOST SUNDAY | The Descent of the Holy Spirit

Even though most of us think of heaven and earth as distinct places, we also believe there can be “thin places” where the two are very close, overlapping even.

I am the fiery life of the Divine essence:
I flame above the beauty of the fields;
I shine in the waters;
I burn in the sun, the moon, and the stars.
And, with the airy wind, I quicken all things vitally
by an unseen, all-sustaining life.

St. Hildegard von Bingen
Pentecost Icon
Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Even though most of us, the world over, think of heaven and earth as distinct places, and quite different in how they function and are experienced, we also believe there can be “thin places” where the two are very close, overlapping even. These could be geographical spots like those along the much-travelled Camino de Santiago, where pilgrims report a sense of the numinous at this or that ancient chapel or grotto. Or it could be a hallowed place of memorial where a historical human act of heroic, selfless (heavenly) love once transformed and redeemed a horrific (earthly) circumstance, and continues to inspire uncommon hope and virtue. But thin places don’t have to have a specifically religious or historical assignation. They could be a hushed and shady grove that repeatedly and reliably settles an agitated soul, or a still water, or a stunning vista over a deep gorge that inspires reverence and awe – in other words, heaven on earth.  

Nor do thin places need to be geographic. They can be symbolic and ceremonial as well: Eucharist, drum circles, ceremonial dance and song, holy traditions of all sorts that draw the earthbound into an encounter with the transcendent. Such an encounter transforms the mundane and inspires reverence before the mystery of the divine.

A thin place, a vanguard of the marriage of heaven and earth promised in scriptures, is generally a safe place, like a fireplace in a living room, “where that which is normally dangerous can be safely located and dealt with.” ( The energy is contained, managed, harvested and oh, so cozy.

Pentecost, argues N.T. Wright, is not like that. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the fire has leaped out of the fireplace and set the rest of the house on fire. For at Pentecost, human divisions are also overcome. Luke records the story in the first two chapters of Acts.

Luke reports that for forty days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared many times to the disciples, giving many convincing proofs that he was alive and teaching them about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, just before his ascension, Jesus instructed his followers not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the promised gift of the Father – the Holy Spirit.  

At this point the disciples asked if this would be when Israel would be restored to its former sovereign glory – to the time before exile, to the time before the humiliating and detested string of foreign occupiers who had long frustrated their nationalistic hopes. The disciples still have not comprehended what their senses apprehended in the risen Christ – their freedom would be a release not only from Rome’s deadly ways reminiscent of Egypt’s pharaohs, but equally from Israel’s tribal aspirations that Rome and its imperial predecessors had suppressed.

Jesus waved off their question. “It is not for you to know…” asserting, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8)

We will not understand the rest of this story if we don’t skip ahead into the teachings of the apostle Paul years later. Remember that in the earliest days of the Christian Church, when the faith was perceived as a threat to Judaism, Paul had been a tribalist par excellence, one who traded in the logic of exceptionalism and exclusion. He described himself as a Hebrew of Hebrews, extremely zealous for the traditions of his ancestors (Philippians 3:4-6; Galatians 1:14).

In defence of his small but cherished world view, he had been on his way to arrest and kill Christians when he had a sudden, traumatic experience of that fire that had leaped out of the fireplace. After his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, and after several years reflecting on the meaning of that encounter, Paul emerged as an apostle to the “outsiders” and proclaimer of God’s plan to reconcile not the few or the chosen, but all of creation in Christ.

Rhapsodizing on Christ, Paul wrote: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19, 20).

How does Paul believe God will accomplish this cosmic reconciliation, this marriage of heaven and earth? Through the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations. That is, “Christ in you, the hope of Glory” (1:26, 27).

Paul’s theology of cosmic reconciliation was a revelation for sure, but not one in a vacuum. By the time he could articulate the implications of the resurrection of Christ, and the coming of the Spirit, Paul had seen what that coming had already accomplished. For after the ascension of Christ, the believers remained in Jerusalem, as Christ had instructed. On the fiftieth day after the resurrection (Pentecost), a mighty wind from heaven filled the place where they were gathered, and tongues of fire settled on each one. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. What followed was twofold.

First, they were given the gift of tongues. That is, the barriers between people marked by culture (language) and nationality (Romans, Cretans and Arabs, to name a few) were overcome as passersby heard the wonders of God declared in their own tongues.

Secondly, they were transformed by radical love of God, which translated into radical love for each other. Luke records that with glad and sincere hearts they devoted themselves to worship and fellowship. They held everything in common, selling whatever was superfluous and shared their resources according to each one’s need.  

Who is the Holy Spirit? Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen writes: “The Father and the Word, mutually beholding their infinite goodness and beauty, love each other from all eternity, and the expression of this unitive love is a third person, the Holy Spirit.” (Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen. Divine Intimacy (Tan Books and Publishers, 1996), 556.)

Many nuanced books have attempted to describe the nature of the Holy Spirit with far greater skill and insight than I have to offer. However, Christian faith affirms that the Holy Spirit (wisdom, advocate, comforter) is first and foremost one of the three persons of the loving Trinity. More than that, the Holy Spirit is the spirit of love itself; the unity or kiss of the Father and the Son. So, the gift of Pentecost is the love that animates the inner Trinitarian life. This gift is a gesture of renewal that is a signpost of the new creation to come, the marriage of heaven and earth, which in Christ and in the Church has already begun.

The opening quotation of this chapter, from Hildegard von Bingen, is evidence of a soul enraptured by the presence of the Spirit of God reanimating the natural order. She was sensitive to those thin places that suggest the promise of resurrection and renewal revealed in nature.

Pentecost reminds us that that promise is also granted to human creation by the Holy Spirit. However, an offer can be rejected, and by definition, the spirit of love can “do no violence to our liberty.” So the promise of Pentecost, for us, is akin to the offer of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. That is, it respectfully awaits our response. Should we decline, Frederick Buechner writes, then “God have mercy on us, for we will soon be as yesterday when it’s gone.” But, he adds, with our loving assent comes that “recklessness of the loving heart, that wild courage, that crazy gladness in the face of darkness and death, that shuddering faithfulness even unto the end of the world, through which new things can come to pass… such qualities as these, which are in fact themselves the first glimmerings of the new things that even now are beginning to come to pass.” (Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 26.)

by Malcolm Guite

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings,
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays,
Today the church draws breath at last and sings,
As every flame becomes a tongue of praise.
This is the feast of Fire, Air and Water,
Poured out and breathed and kindled into Earth.
The Earth herself awakens to her maker,
Translated out of death and into birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release.
Today the gospel crosses every border,
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace.
Today the lost are found in his translation,
Whose mother-tongue is love, in every nation.

Malcolm Guite Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year (Canterbury Press, 2012), 47.