Sunday last, we draped the chancel furniture in red paraments to remind us that on the Day of Pentecost, in the words of the King James Version, “there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire.” Parenthetically, I must say that I could not figure that out when I was a small boy: cloven tongues of fire.
I knew only that cloves came in a jar, looked like nails, and that sometimes at Christmas my mother stuck them in oranges, creating a truly wonderful smell. But I do remember trying to picture what cloves might look like, or smell like, attached to a tongue wreathed in flame; or how God could get cloves into that same tongue; or why God would even do such a thing. Maybe it was because they looked like little nails, pointing aesthetically to Jesus and the cross, Easter and Pentecost. At that time, I did not make the connection.
Many of us misunderstand things through the years, unable to make connections between our lives and the Bible, the portrait we have of God in Jesus. We try putting what we have together, making pictures with the words we are given, and oftentimes, puzzling through them alone yields no results. We need others—the church, our classes, our preachers, our bible studies and prayer meetings—to help us find our way.
Modern translations helped me tidy up the idea: pieces of fire, tongues of fire, petals of fire. And, indeed, on Pentecost, in many Greek Orthodox churches, the petals of roses are dropped from the ceiling onto worshipers, paralleling the tongues of fire and the gift of power they are given. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes like fire as power and speech: a gift of powerful utterance given to disciples who only fifty days before fled, hid and locked themselves away for fear of confessing that they even knew Jesus. It is at this time they are given the voice, the heart, and the courage to say what they are not able to say alone: Jesus is alive, Messiah, Son, Lord and King. In Him we have eternal life.
This is the sound of Pentecost: divided tongues, as of fire; loud rush of wind; overlapping languages. Can you hear the sound of Pentecost just before this point in time? The pandemonium begins around nine o’clock, so what do you hear in the upper room at seven thirty or a quarter after eight before the crackle of flame, the wind and speech? Can you hear the sound of the apostles anticipation; obedient hopefulness; open hearts and minds? Can you hear the sound where you worship?