THE lectionary pairs the story of Babel with that of Pentecost. As St Cyril of Jerusalem writes, “In that former confusion of tongues there was a division of purpose, for the intention was impious. Here there was a restoration and union of minds, since the object of their zeal was righteous.”
The “impious” intention at Babel is the fruit of the people’s fear: they build the city to avoid being “scattered”. Walter Brueggemann explains that they have a “fortress mentality”, seeking a “a self-made unity” rather than place their trust in a God who wills that they spread across the face of the earth. God wants them to find their unity not in defensive fortresses but in “trustful obedience” to his word (Interpretation Bible Commentary: Genesis).
In our Gospel reading, Jesus promises his disciples that the gift of his peace will accompany the sending of the Spirit. This peace stands in stark contrast to the obedience of the subjects terrorised into submission by Rome’s imperial might — and, in particular, by the gruesome fate of the rebels whom it crucified. Like those who built Babel, the Roman Empire takes refuge in a defensive, self-made unity.
The peace of Christ is also won by the Cross, but it is the Lord himself who reigns from the tree. His paschal victory is the source of true peace, of which the Pentecostal “restoration and union of minds” is a sign.
The wind and the fire of the Spirit in Acts 2 echo the Old Testament’s theophanies. “What exactly ‘divided tongues’ are, or what it means that they rested on each person, is quite unclear. What is clear is that the Holy Spirit pervades the gathered community so that all are in its grasp” (Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Acts).
In the Old Testament, flame is also used as an image of purgation (cf. Malachi 3.2). As Cyril explains, the fire of Pentecost “consumes the thorns of sins but gives lustre to the soul”. He tells those who are preparing for baptism that the fire of the Spirit “is now coming upon you also in order to strip away and consume your sins, which are like thorns, and to brighten yet more that precious possession of your souls, and to give you grace, the same given then to the apostles”.
These words capture two aspects of the Spirit’s refining work. It is painful, because it “strips away and consumes” our sin. But it is, above all, an act of divine love, restoring in us the “lustre” of God’s image.
These twin themes — love and purgation — are reflected in our Gospel. Jesus describes the Holy Spirit both as the “Advocate” and as the “Spirit of truth”, which “the world cannot receive because it neither sees nor knows him”.
Such “truth” is more than a purely cognitive understanding. This is why our collect talks of God’s teaching “the hearts of [your] faithful people” by sending them “the light of your Holy Spirit”. The Lord desires not simply right belief (Psalm 51.6, James 2.18f) but “truth in the inward being”. His Spirit comes not to inform, but to transform, us.
Precisely because the Spirit is our “Advocate” (or “Comforter”), we have no need to fear this transforming work. St Catherine of Siena explains that, as we cease to live in fear of God’s judgement, our sins become instead the cause of tears of penitence. As the Spirit draws us into a deeper state of union with God, we are filled with sorrow at the ways in which our sins estrange us from him and damage those around us. We no longer fear God’s refining fire, but embrace this work of individual and corporate transformation.
The miracle of Pentecost divides the crowd: as Jesus indicates in our Gospel reading, some choose not to “see or know” the work of the Spirit. These sceptics sneer that the disciples “are filled with new wine” — a barb that contains a deeper truth than they can recognise. For, as Cyril explains, they are indeed filled with the new wine of the Spirit.
This “sober drunkenness” is “deadly to sin and life-giving to the heart”. Whereas ordinary drunkenness causes “forgetfulness of what was known”, the intoxication of the Spirit leads us to “knowledge even of what was not known”: a living union with God, which brings his love and truth to the very depths of our being.