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Pentecost: A Fire That Burns, But Does Not Consume

Pentecost: A Fire That Burns, But Does Not Consume

A dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit illuminates from inside St. Peter’s Basilica. (photo: AM113 / Shutterstock)


COMMENTARY: The fulfilled Pentecost follows the fulfilled Passover, and occurs during the very celebration of the Old Testament Pentecost.

When I was in middle school and heard the account of the Pentecost and the tongues of fire, I remember asking why the apostles didn’t burn up. If tongues of fire fell upon them, why is it that they were not charred to the ground?

The catechist at the time seemed annoyed by my question and dismissed it. But I thought it was a good question then, and — honestly — I still think it’s a good question today.

Why is it that the Holy Spirit came as tongues of fire? Why is it that the apostles and Our Lady were not consumed by the flames?

These questions are important because their answers lead us to a deeper realization and understanding of the mystery of Pentecost. They also help us to apply the lessons of Pentecost to our lives as believers today.


Pentecost in the Old Covenant

As we summarize the account of Pentecost, we’re left with the reality: The fire fell but Our Lady and the apostles in the Upper Room were not consumed. Once we hear such a thing, we’re immediately led back to Moses before the burning bush at Mount Sinai. The bush was on fire, but was not consumed.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed (Exodus 3:1-2).

The bush wasn’t consumed because the fire was expressing the presence of God. It led Moses to greater reverence. It was a sign of his purification and of his call to go and proclaim freedom from slavery and an exodus back to the Promised Land of his forefathers.

Forty-nine days after the 10th plague of the Passover and the liberation of God’s people from Egypt, Moses brought God’s people to Mount Sinai. On the 50th day, the Pentecost — which is a Greek word meaning “the 50th” — God came to his people and ratified the covenant he made with them at the Passover. The Pentecost sealed the deal of the Passover.

The ratification of the covenant was marked by a magnificent display of God’s power and majesty. As before, so now, Moses will encounter God through a fire that burns but does not consume. The Book of Exodus tells us about the first Pentecost:

Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up (Exodus 19:18-20).

God ordered the celebration of Pentecost — also called the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot — as an annual feast day for his people. While rich in the biblical narrative and in theological significance, we can simply say that the Pentecost was the holy day that told the powerful story: The God of fire is the God who does not destroy. The God who liberates is also the God who desires a covenant with us.


Pentecost in the New Covenant

Moving into the New Covenant, after the Lord ascended, he told his apostles to wait for the coming of the Advocate. As they waited, they went to a place they knew, a place that was familiar — even intimate — to them. They returned to the Upper Room, the very place where the Lord had celebrated the Last Supper and where he appeared to them after his Resurrection. There the apostolic community was joined by Mary, Mother of the Church, as they prayed and waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

This time of apostolic prayer concluded on the 50th day after the Lord’s Resurrection. The fulfilled Pentecost follows the fulfilled Passover. The new Pentecost occurs in the midst of the very celebration of the Old Testament Pentecost. The old is giving way to the new.

As Moses went to meet God amid thunder and fire, so the apostles and Mary would encounter the living God through fire. On the new Pentecost, God came to Mary and the apostles as tongues of fire. The Acts of the Apostles tell us:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting (Acts 2:1-2).

The Holy Spirit filled them with his power. He ratified the liberation and the covenant that was begun in that same Upper Room more than seven weeks earlier. The covenant of the new Passover is sealed by the fire of the new Pentecost. It is a fire that burns but does not destroy.

The tongues of fire are rich in meaning and mission. The fire is once again given as a purification and a bestowal of zeal for a mission of announcing the saving message of liberation and covenant in Jesus Christ.

The fire comes as tongues because once again God is announcing freedom to his people and a return to their homeland. It is a freedom not from a particular nation of the earth, but the ultimate freedom from the ancient enemies of sin and death. It is an ushering into an ancestral homeland, not the Canaan of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but the eternal homeland of heaven and an everlasting dwelling place with God.


The Birth of the Church

The fiery action of God was the launch of the Church. It was the reboot of everything God had previously done for his people. Now, the work is fulfilled. Now, salvation is at hand.

Now the Gentiles are welcomed into the promises of Israel. Now, God offers himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life for all men and women, of every culture and race, and of every social status.

The Church, as the universal People of God, is born. Conceived in the Upper Room, brought forth through the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, the Church is now fully alive and ready to cry out to the nations, with tongues of fire, the saving presence of God in Jesus Christ — a fiery presence that burns, but does not consume.

This is the new Pentecost. It is the celebration of God’s presence. This is why the fire fell, but the apostles and Our Lady were not consumed. This is the descent of the Holy Spirit, whom we have also received. It is the ratification of the new Passover and the New and Everlasting Covenant given to us by the Lord Jesus. It is a fire that comes to us. It leads us to a reverence for God’s presence, purges us, heals us, convicts us, transforms us, makes us holy, and then compels us to go and announce the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world.



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