We all know the basic story of Pentecost: the apostles, gathered in the upper room, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to preach boldly about Jesus. But there’s so much more to the story than this brief outline.
So let’s take a closer look by examining the apostles’ own experience on that day. Here were men who lived with Jesus and heard his teachings. You might say they had Jesus as their personal retreat director.
Yet in spite of this, the apostles had a hard time putting Jesus’ teaching into practice. In the garden of Gethsemane, they were sleeping instead of praying. When Jesus was arrested, they failed to turn the other cheek. They failed, all the way up to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them. That’s when they became new people—courageous, zealous, ready to die for Jesus. Our hope is that we, too, can be changed by the same Holy Spirit. So let’s pause for a while, listen to the story of Pentecost, and see if we can experience what the apostles experienced on that day.
Something happens when we listen carefully to the story of Pentecost. It’s like what happens in the Eucharist. At the moment of consecration, the Church retells what Jesus did on the last night of his life: he took bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. When this story is recounted by an ordained priest in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, it actually brings about what it describes. What happened on Jesus’ last night on earth happens again: the bread becomes the Body of Christ. Likewise, when we listen to the story of Pentecost with open, trusting hearts, the coming of the Holy Spirit can happen again in our day.
Signs of the Spirit. The disciples were gathered with Mary, when suddenly, the noise of a powerful wind filled the house. Then, something like tongues of fire appeared, separating and resting on the head of each person. All were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4).
Now, when God is about to do something important in history, he usually gives signs. He knows how distracted we can be, so he tries to get our attention. That’s what happened on Pentecost: God prepared his people with signs. One sign was for their ears: a noise like a strong wind. This was not a neutral, ambiguous sign, because wind was the symbol of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Hebrew uses the same word—ruach—for both “spirit” and “wind,” and the same is true of the Greek word pneuma. This is a wind that “blows where it wills,” heard but unseen (John 3:8).
Then there was a sign for the eyes: flames like tongues of fire. Again, this was a very eloquent sign, because Scripture often associates fire with the Holy Spirit and because John the Baptist said that Jesus would “baptize” people “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
So God gave them signs, and now they were ready for the reality that these signs pointed toward: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). All of Pentecost is hidden in this one line! This is a challenge for us because it can be easy to skip over a line like this and move on. But there are unfathomable depths hidden beneath this one line that point to God’s love.
“I Felt Loved by God.” First, it’s important to note that the Holy Spirit is the love of God. Within the Trinity, he is the flame of love going from the Father to the Son and from the Son to the Father. The Holy Spirit, this flame of love, is sweetness, joy, and blessedness; it is the bearer of the divine life of the Trinity. So to say that the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit means that they were filled with the love of God. The life of the Trinity descended and was infused into their hearts.
Being filled with the Holy Spirit is more than a promise from Jesus; it’s an experience. Imagine the life of the Trinity—divine life itself—filling a person’s heart! Pentecost was the moment when each of the apostles had the overwhelming experience of being loved by God. This was God’s aim all along. He created the world with the intention of sharing his life with his creatures. Now, after Jesus had died and destroyed sin, the world was ready to receive this life. So on Pentecost day, the goal of all creation was fulfilled.
Do you think this was an unconscious event for the apostles—something that took place deep down in their hearts but that they didn’t feel? Certainly not! This wasn’t like a heart transplant with full anesthesia. No, they experienced something. From that moment on, they were new persons, full of courage, fearlessly preaching Jesus. Only love can achieve that.
Whenever people have a strong personal experience of Pentecost, they usually describe it by saying, “I felt loved by God.” I have heard this testimony many times. I remember an eighty-year-old woman going around and shaking people and saying, “Do you know? I feel like a little girl. Now I see what it means to be a daughter of God!” Another person told me, “I had lived all my life with a bitter feeling of not being loved and not being able to be loved by anyone. In a moment, this feeling disappeared and never returned.”
St. Paul confirmed this when he said, “The love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). This is what the Spirit is all about. Pentecost is the moment when, by the grace of God, you realize that you are specially loved by God as his precious son or daughter. Your whole life changes, and you enter into a kind of paradise.