The Day of Pentecost, rcl yr b, 2021
Acts 2:1-21; Ps. 104:25-35, 37B; Rom. 8:22-271; John 15:26-27, 16:4B-15
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them
When TS Eliot wrote Little Gidding, the final part of his monumental poem, the Four Quartets, it was the spring of 1941and the German air war against England was at its peak. And England was not doing well. England’s ally, France, had fallen the previous year. Hitler hadn’t yet divided his strength by opening up a second front in his invasion of Russia. And Pearl Harbour was months away, so the US, and its strength, had yet to enter the war.
It might have been London’s darkest hour, when Eliot sat down to write Little Gidding, including its fourth section, which begins with the words,
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
It’s Pentecost today, and I hope that you can hear, in those lines, what Eliot was describing: the “dove descending” is the Holy Spirit, as we read of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew, Mark and Luke: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” (That’s how Mark puts it.)
But Eliot doesn’t write just of a dove here. “The dove descending breaks the air With flame …” And with that we are reminded again of the Holy Spirit, and our reading from Acts. According to Luke, “When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place. … Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.”
And though Eliot’s language is a bit jarring, writing that “The dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror,” this isn’t far from how Acts describes of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, is after all described as something “like the rush of a violent wind.”
But its the additional meaning that Eliot layers onto this part of the poem that I’d like to explore—as a way to speak of how the Holy Spirit operates, and how the Holy Spirit doesn’t operate.
It’s fair to say that the Holy Spirit brings joy, jubilation, and celebration. We shouldn’t forget this! But neither should we imagine that this is the only way the Spirit operates; if the Spirit brings us closer to God, it would be to the God of the Psalms, in which we find both jubilation and lament; if the Spirit brings us closer to Jesus, we would do well to remember that to be close to Jesus may mean being close to him in Gethsemane, too.
And Eliot, who sat down to write these verses about the Holy Spirit during one of England’s darkest hours, when the air war was lighting up the skies and the ground of London, he captures some of just how wrenching it can be when we are in the hands of the Holy Spirit. What Eliot is describing as “[t]he dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror” was the Stuka Bomber. The Stuka Bombers that approached their targets with a furious high-pitched scream, descending upon Eliot’s London, dropping their payloads with “incandescent terror.”
It’s extraordinary, really. Eliot is comparing the screaming violence of war and destruction with the work of the Holy Spirit. And, well, he’s most certainly onto something. It’s not just Acts that speaks of the Holy Spirit in terms of a violent fire. Matthew speaks of a Jesus who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. And for some of us conversion is like that, growth in God is like that—like being set aflame, wrenched out of an old existence and into a deeply uncomfortable new one.
In fact it can be more than uncomfortable; when we tell the truth, and hear the truth, it can even hurt. But if it’s the Holy Spirit? Then it is a cleansing fire, a painful truth perhaps at first, but one that leads into life.
We do need to be careful here. This way of thinking can lead us down some blind alleys. Sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways, like when we say to a suffering person, “everything happens for a reason.” As if all pain and all suffering were ordained by God and meant to make us stronger, or something. It’s a way of thinking that has covered over all sorts of mistreatment in the name of God and the church, or in families, or other less-than-healthy relationships. It’s a kind of gaslighting, isn’t it—“this might hurt, but don’t be concerned with that. It will be good for you.”
And to return to Eliot, I suppose we could even use this notion, that spiritual growth can be painful and costly, to rationalize the horrors of war. If we weren’t careful we might even read Eliot’s words that way, as though he wrote of “[t]he dove descending [that] breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror,” as though the Stuka Bombers and their fiery violence was itself the work of God, and that the descending Spirit was somehow working through that violence.
But this is not how the Holy Spirit works, nor is it how Eliot describes the work of the Holy Spirit. Eliot finishes the stanza that begins with “[t]he dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror” with the following: “The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre- To be redeemed from fire by fire.” The experience of the Holy Spirit may be painful, it may feel like getting scorched over. But the Holy Spirit’s fire is what redeems us from those other fires—the unkindnesses of others, the mistreatment we sometimes endure, and the violence of war.
The Holy Spirit’s fire is what redeems us from the fire of evil. There is a choice for Eliot, between “pyre or pyre.” And only one of these fires, the fire of the Holy Spirit, redeems us from the fires destroy.
There’s a few of things I’d like for you to be able to take home today. Some has already been spoken. Don’t be afraid of spiritual growth that might be painful. Growth can simply be painful, and Scripture uses the analogy of fire to describe God’s work for this sort of reason. Further, like I said: not all painful things are of God. Indeed, Scripture also speaks of fires from which we should be saved!
Sometimes, we may well experience the night of sense, where our spiritual dryness feels a lot like depression, but is really the work of God purifying us and preparing us for a greater intimacy. And other times, we are simply depressed and might need to get some help from a doctor.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise that the Spirit calls us into what sometimes feels painful, much like what the Psalms describe. This is Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley’s point when she writes on this subject. We are Christians who believe in a triune God; and if you’re less than comfortable with trinitarian language, another way we could put it is that we don’t just believe in the Spirit, we also believe in Jesus. And if God by the Spirit is bringing us closer to Jesus, then we shouldn’t be surprised to sometimes find ourselves in Gethsemane, with Jesus and sharing his passion.
Let’s return almost to the where I started though. The Holy Spirit does, too, bring us joy, jubilation, and celebration. And let’s not forget this; that as we are drown closer to Jesus, we really shouldn’t be surprised by joy.
Joy finds a way.
There is, and there will be, beauty.
And so I’ll leave you with Eliot’s last words; he may not have been speaking of joy specifically, but when he speaks of the rose, he is speaking of joy’s cousin, beauty, and how beauty and the fire of purgative love, meet in Christ:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons