Pentecost is the Memorial of Divine Noise

By Victor Cancino SJ, 27 May 2023
Painted scene of disciples at Pentecost
A painting of the scene of Pentecost in the cathedral in Antwerp, Belgium. Image: Renata Sedmakova/


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.

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. 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.

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Victor M. Cancino, S.J., lives on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana and is the pastor-delegate for St. Ignatius Mission. He studied Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.   

With thanks to America, where this article originally appeared.


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