The description we read this morning is vivid indeed. We can hear the sound of the wind, "violently blowing as it filled the whole house"; we can see the "parted tongues of fire, settling on the heads of each of them" -- we can imagine that, if we had been there in the Upper Room with the Apostles, we would even smell the smoke of that fire. One has to wonder what it must have sounded like to hear the Apostles preaching in such a way that the diverse inhabitants of Jerusalem heard them "speaking in their own languages of the wonderful works of God."1 Elsewhere, in a number of passages from the Epistles, we read of those who receive the Holy Ghost "speaking in tongues and prophesying."2
Rather naturally, we might ask ourselves why we don't see such physical manifestations for ourselves. Why is it that we feel no wind and see no fire this morning as we celebrate this feast of the descent of the Holy Ghost? Why is it that when the bishop Confirms someone, laying on his hands and anointing their heads with the Holy Chrism, we see none of this?
We might approach the question from a different perspective. If we consider the birth and the life of our Lord Jesus Christ -- and if we compare His life to these few accounts of the Holy Ghost -- we quickly come to the realization that they are unusual. God generally works in a humble and "low key" manner. There may have been a few exceptions -- a star and a few wise men and some angels singing "Glória in excelsis Deo" at His birth -- the rending of the curtain of the Temple and an earthquake at His death -- but, if anything can be learned from the Gospels, we see that our Lord generally works without flourish. Even when He works miracles -- even when He is transfigured -- there is the admonition to "tell no one till the Son of Man has risen from the dead." Even though the works of God are visible to all with eyes to see, they are rarely flashy spectacles. All of life is one continuous miracle -- that men can derive sustenance out of the soil of the earth, and bring forth children to take their place when their time has elapsed, is a miracle without precedent -- but also a miracle without fanfare. As we read in the Book of the Prophet Isaias, even though "God is the designer and the maker of the earth," He is "Deus abscónditus," a "hidden God," a "God of mystery."3
If there is any question raised by today's Gospel, it is "why are the events of Pentecost accompanied by such an uncharacteristic display?" The answer, of course, is implicit in what we read today, and in the readings from the Acts of the Apostles that we will read this week: There was an urgency on God's part to get His Church under way among the Jews, and particularly among the Gentiles. Remember that, apart from the Jews, very few people in the ancient world knew God. "The gods of the Gentiles [were often] devils," as Psalm ninety-five tells us.4 At best they saw the power of God in creation, but then worshipped the things of creation as though they were gods in themselves. The Jews had rejected Jesus Christ, and now it was necessary for God to make Himself known to the Cretans and the Arabians, and the Romans, and the Mesopotamians, and the Egyptians. In the terminology of our modern times, we might say that God was "jump-starting" His Church among the Gentiles.
That, of course, leads us to another, and perhaps more important question. If we don't see the Holy Ghost in these chrisms -- if we don't hear wind, see fire, and speak in tongues -- how can we see the action of the Holy Ghost in our own times. More to the point, still -- how do we know that the Holy Ghost is active in us?
Saint Augustine addressed that question centuries ago. He suggested that we can think of the Holy Ghost as the love of God, personified. He tells us that to find the Holy Ghost we must look within ourselves. If we love God, He will dwell within us. If we do not love God, we cannot know Him.5
If we do love God, it will be obvious to us that the Holy Ghost dwells within us. Remember those "Gifts of the Holy Ghost" that we memorized years ago before being confirmed? Wisdom, Understanding, Piety, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Fear of the Lord? Remember the "Fruits of the Holy Ghost"? Charity, Joy, Peace, Patience, Benignity, Goodness, Longsuffering, Mildness, Faith, Modesty, Continency, and Chastity. If it has been too many years and we can no longer define all of those things, perhaps it will be enough to reflect simply on the good feeling that we get from being in the grace of God and at peace with Him. Remember Faith, Hope, and Charity if nothing else.
If we do not have these gifts and fruits of the Holy Ghost, it is a good sign that we need to make a change in our lives. God wants to dwell in us. If He does not, it is because we have refused Him access. If we look down into our souls and do not find Him there, it is time to make an examination of conscience, a good Confession, and to receive Him once again in Holy Communion.
Our Lord said it very plainly at the beginning of today's Gospel: "If anyone love Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him."
1. Epistle of Pentecost: Acts ii: