This Sunday marks the day when churches commemorate the descent of the Spirit. This feast of fiery tongues and intoxicating presence has haunted the Christian imagination. Symbolizing the divine breath that filled the first humans with life, the rushing mighty wind overwhelms the senses, reminding believers that “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things. . . . Because the Holy Spirit over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Enclosed within the burning cloud of Sinai, Pentecost also remains tinged with judgment. Like joy-bearing grief, the inebriating effect of the fiery tongues purifies individuals with a holy fear that births holy love. It is when, in Eliot’s words, “the dove descending breaks the air / with flame of incandescent terror / of which the tongues declare / the one discharge from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair / Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre / To be redeemed from fire by fire.”
In the same way that Easter finds its replication in the baptismal immersion into Christ’s death and resurrection, so Pentecost announces the strengthening grace of the Spirit whose intoxicating presence fructifies. The one Gift brings forth a multitude of gifts. While Pentecostals have referred to this movement as a distinct work of grace beyond initial conversion, it is, in fact, a new mode of the Spirit’s presence stemming from an ecstatic immersion in which the believer becomes liquefied and poured out as an offering to the triune God. Tongues are but signifiers of this ascent into ecstasy.
Richard of St. Victor referred to it as the third and fourth degrees of violent charity. Caught up into the divine presence, the third degree of violent charity softens human loves, turning hardened vices into molten desires from which gifts can be fashioned. The violence of the fourth degree is the suddenness of mission as the arresting effect of love propels the person back down from the heavenly realms into the world. Grace does not simply heal from sinful desire, it strengthens and empowers so that the believer becomes gift first to the self and then to others.
One finds the liturgical counter to Pentecost in the rite of confirmation. Even though Lutherans are quick to confess that confirmation is not a sacrament, prayers are said for the candidate to receive the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit. The 1919 Common Service Book of the United Lutheran Church in America has the minister calling upon God to “strengthen [candidates]. . .with the Holy Ghost, the Comforter; and daily increase in them Thy manifold gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding; the spirit of counsel and might; the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, now and forever.”
The Lutheran devotional writer Johann Arndt had already connected the gifts of the Spirit in Isaiah 11 to the proclamation of Pentecost. “The gifts of the Holy Spirit rest in such men as they did in Christ himself as Isaiah 11:2 has pointed out. Therefore, Peter said in Acts 2:38, ‘Repent and you will receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit.’” The movement of Pentecost, according to Arndt, is from weakness to strength, from repentance to holiness, and the gifts are the means to traverse the distance between. It is no mistake that the Lutheran prayer is for strengthening since, as Bonaventure summarized the tradition, the Isaianic gifts are not healing grace but strengthening grace because they supply the power to overcome.
The sevenfold gift fortifies against the seven deadly sins or principle vices, which are nothing more than the hardening of emotion and desire into destructive dispositions. As internal movements, pride, envy, anger, sloth (debilitating despair), avarice, gluttony, and lust work against the soul, bending it inward upon itself until there is a veil between the self and its true identity. The problem has never been desire per se, but the way in which desires can destroy like the despair that creeps into the soul when dreams deferred become dreams denied. Originally conceived by Evagrius and Cassian as spirits that tempt, the sevenfold gift of the Spirit empowers the believer to overcome these misdirected desires so that love ceases to be cupidity and becomes charity. In the soberness of ecstasy, we behold who we are in Christ; we meet the gods again because we have faces.
The eruption of Pentecost is the further release of the one Gift so that many gifts may spring forth. It is the Spirit’s intoxicating presence in a new mode that empowers the believer to pass beyond the veil and enter the full freedom of the sons and daughters of God. No wonder Gregory the Great saw virtues and gifts as stemming from the one Spirit through the reformation of desire since miracle-working virtue and moral-working virtue were both manifestations of this new-found strength. This Pentecost Sunday, let us pray once more that the Spirit would rush into our lives again to increase the manifold gifts of grace.