Tongues of Fire: Who is the Holy Spirit?

Pentecost is on its way. Sometimes this beautiful feast gets lost in the summer season — it’s time for vacations and sunshine, and sometimes after the excitement of Great Lent and Holy Pascha, we can just slide right past these early summer feasts.

There’s probably no Sunday School in session, so it’s up to the parents and the godparents and grandparents to bring the kids to church and to tell them that it’s Pentecost, the birthday of the Holy Church, when Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit, our Comforter, is fulfilled. It’s our job to bring them to the services, and our job to explain what they mean.

Pentecost is a truly amazing feast. The second chapter of Acts opens,

“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2: 1-4)

Divided tongues, as of fire. Tongues of fire, sat upon each of them… and they began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

I am a language person — I love to study various languages and consider their development; I collect new words and marvel at how language works. Pentecost is the most fascinating feast in terms of language, for the apostles gather there in the upper room, ‘with one accord in one place’, and God sends down the Holy Spirit, and the tongues of fire come upon them and suddenly language is no barrier — everyone understands each other. The Tower of Babel is reversed: the Holy Spirit makes all language into one language, paving the way for the Gospel to spread faster.

Human beings have these limitations, these little languages that only work among people from our own region; we cannot speak to each other across cultures and in distant lands. Even when speak same language, we still suffer misunderstanding and confusion. Our language is so limited; our ability to express ourselves is so poor, but the Holy Spirit can help us communicate with one another, can connect us. Language fails us all the time, but the Holy Spirit opens up our hearts and allows messages to get through anyway! That is most visible on Pentecost, when the Apostles speak in tongues that everyone around them understands — language just stops being a limit, and finally functions to unite us in common understanding. Language is perfected and fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit!

Events like Pentecost don’t happen every day, but think of those times when a sermon touches us or a podcast or an article hits just the right note. When someone on the street says exactly what you needed to hear, we are left to wonder: did the Holy Spirit send that message, in just the right way at just the right time? Perhaps. The Holy Spirit is the great communicator — somehow, through the Holy Spirit, we are granted the joy of speaking to each other’s hearts.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, “Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12)

It is the Holy Spirit who knows what words a heart needs to hear, and the Spirit can communicate those words to you, noiselessly, so that they just tumble out of your willing mouth. It’s a really remarkable thing — the Holy Spirit is both a knower of hearts and a giver of words. On Pentecost, it is revealed that the Holy Spirit overcomes language, or rather, fulfills language: our limited, weak words, so prone to error and misunderstanding, are transfigured by Him into perfect communication.

Perfect communication. That makes me wonder, what was language like in Paradise? Back in the Garden of Eden, God walked in the afternoons with Adam and Eve, and they communicated with Him. Perhaps at the End of Days, in a transformed and resurrected world, when Christ returns to us and the Kingdom is fully manifest and visible to all, perhaps language too will be made whole and good and perfect. That will surely be the work of the Holy Spirit.

So, my favorite thing about Pentecost’s tongues of fire is the tongues — but what about the fire?

Well, fire transforms; it purifies. And the Holy Spirit transforms and purifies our hearts. This fire produces light — the light of God — and it illumines things; the Holy Spirit grants understanding, so that the Scriptures and the love of God are made clear to our hearts.

Love is often understood to be a kind of fire — in fact, I found a beautiful prayer that I gave to my children, because our love for God is a gift, and we have to ask for it. This is the Prayer for Love:

Christ my God, set my heart on fire with love in You, that in its flame I may love You with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul and with all my strength, and my neighbor as myself, so that by keeping Your commandments I may glorify You the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Amen.

We pray to have our hearts set afire — because a burning heart is a loving heart, one that yearns only for God, and in that fiery love we are transformed.

St. Nikolai Velimirovich said, “The heart is the home of the Father, the altar of the Son, and the workshop of the Holy Spirit.” I love that image — the workshop of the Holy Spirit. God abides in us and is worshipped by us, and most importantly, He is at work, transforming us.

Even knowing all of this about the Holy Spirit, it can difficult to talk about this person of the Holy Trinity with our kids. It seems that the Father and the Son are a little easier to discuss; people are familiar with Fathers and Sons, and somehow these persons are a little less abstract than the Holy Spirit.

We have just one major prayer to the Holy Spirit, but it’s important enough to preface all of our prayers, all of the time. It’s not a bad idea to pull out the first prayer from the trisagion and write it down, and looking over each of these phrases one by one with our children:

O Heavenly King,

The Holy Spirit is truly God, just like the Father and the Son. What’s more, this is a reminder that we have a King; we are His subjects, and it is our goal to bring our hearts under His holy reign.

the Comforter,

In Greek, this word is Paraclete, which is not only one who brings comfort, but also one who makes us stronger, who encourages us and who is our helper and would advocate for us and defend us. The Holy Spirit is actively working toward our salvation, encouraging our good efforts and also making efforts on our behalf.

the Spirit of Truth,

When Jesus dies on the Cross, His disciples don’t really understand what is happening. They are still looking for the new King of Israel — in fact, even after His resurrection, they continue to ask if He is about to take the throne of Israel now. They do yet understand that the Kingdom of God is not of this earth and is in fact much larger and more revolutionary than an earthly government could ever be. Jesus says that the disciples are ‘not ready to bear’ all of this information yet, but when the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide them to understanding. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, because He speaks right to our heart and reveals to the Truth of the Gospel and the Truth of God’s love for us and of the whole plan for our salvation and deification.

Who art everywhere present and Who fillest all things,

God is everywhere — we cannot hide from Him; there is nowhere we can go to be away for Him. The Holy Spirit is everywhere present, and while He cannot be contained, He is present in all things. Of course, when we are chrismated we seal the Holy Spirit inside of people, and when we bless our food or when a priest blesses holy water or an icon or our cars, we are calling the Holy Spirit to come down into this thing. The Holy Spirit can and does fill up all things — even the most humble form of matter can be filled with the Holy Spirit. God truly loves His creation.

Treasury of Blessings

All good things come from God — and so we are not surprised to find that the Holy Spirit is a treasury of good things. In his letter to Galatians, St. Paul lists the specific gifts of the Holy Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal. 5: 22-23) If we hope to have any of these things, we know Who to ask: look to the Holy Spirit, the treasury of blessings.

and Giver of Life,

The Holy Spirit is the giver of life everlasting to all who place their hope in the Son of God. Also, in a cosmic way, the Holy Spirit is the One who holds everything that exists together; He is truly the giver of all life. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit that makes life possible, that sustains us and our whole Cosmos. What an idea to carry out to the backyard or to the park, to lay down on the grass and to stare at the trees and think: these things are alive because of the Holy Spirit. This planet continues to rotate and to orbit around the sun, this galaxy, this universe, the multi-verse, all of it, holds together because of the Holy Spirit.

come and abide in us, —

How amazing after thinking of the Holy Spirit in this cosmic way, how amazing to come down to the very personal level and to think that at our chrismation, we seal the Holy Spirit within us, and several times a day, we pray that the Spirit come and abide in us. We don’t wish to be just visited by the Spirit on occasion, but to attract the Spirit to stay with us, at work in the workshop of our hearts all of the time. The Holy Spirit can do that — it can stay with us, and simply live in our hearts, always helping us.

and cleanse us from every stain —

The work of the Holy Spirit is to cleanse our hearts, to free us from the sins and passions that bind us.

and save our souls, —

And by abiding us and cleansing us, the Holy Spirit saves our souls, bringing them to eternal life.

O Good One. —

Finally, we affirm the goodness of the Holy Spirit and of God, just as God affirmed the goodness of creation every day (And He saw that it was good.) God is good, and He is the source of all that is good, so we conclude, O Good One.
Pentecost is the perfect time to teach our children about the Holy Spirit — although truly, any time is a wonderful time to talk with them about the Holy Trinity and its mysterious third person.

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for your work here. You have made Pentecost so much more clear to me, and I look forward to sharing this with the kids this week as we celebrate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *