Pentecost then and now

Gerald O’Collins SJ looks at how contemplating the Holy Spirit in poetry, liturgy and Scripture can help us appreciate Pentecost.

In a poem on Pentecost, a distinguished Australian writer, Peter Steele SJ (1939–2012), spent a stanza picturing the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2.5–13). They reacted to the behaviour of the disciples with astonishment:

At what got into them,
So recently the gutless wonders,
To send them into the street
Ablaze with zest, Mosaic in their thunders,
Riding the tides of eloquence to meet
The gulfs of God with joy they could not stem.1
Powerful images for the Holy Spirit

The impact of this stanza (and, indeed, of the entire poem) depends on the contemporary language used to tell the familiar story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in wind and flame. What ‘got into them’, these followers of Jesus, who ‘so recently’ seemed ‘gutless wonders, to send them into the street’? This tough, colloquial language communicates directly and with effect.
It also does so through introducing associations with divine epiphanies in the Old Testament, and notably with the fire and thunder that marked God’s self-displays on Mount Sinai. At Pentecost, the followers of Jesus seemed ‘ablaze with zest’. Seeing them ‘ablaze’ with tongues of fire and hearing ‘their thunders’ suggest what Moses experienced when meeting God.
‘Riding the tides of eloquence’ conveys the nimble strength of those who can joyfully mount the tides (on ‘the gulfs of God’). The image remains vividly alive today through riding the surf. ‘Tides of eloquence’ catch up the way the Holy Spirit enabled Peter and Jesus’ other followers to address effectively and in their own languages crowds of people, gathered for what they had not expected: the outpouring of the Spirit at the first Pentecost.

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