“Cloven toungues as if of fire”—An early homily on Pentecost

05.22.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

CPART’s Carl Griffin provides a treat for us to contemplate this weekend as much of the Christian world celebrates Pentecost Sunday. —BHodges

Pentecost Sunday (Whitsunday, this Sunday) marks the end of Eastertide, the seven weeks of rejoicing following Easter Sunday. On it Christians traditionally celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples as recorded in Acts 2. Its commemoration as a Christian festival goes back to at least the second century. ((Canon 43 of the Council of Elvira (ca. 300) emphasized the necessity of observing it.)) About a century later a pilgrim called Egeria described its celebration in Jerusalem as a day so full of prescribed activities that it placed strenuous demands on the observant person. ((“Qua die maximum labor est populo,” Itin. Eger. 43.)) It included a grand procession to the Church of Sion within the walls of Jerusalem at the site of the Pentecost miracle, which had to arrive “at precisely the third hour” (see Acts 2:15) for the reading from Acts 2 about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Since at least Egeria’s day the reading of Acts 2:1-13 has been part of the liturgy of the feast of Pentecost. A complimentary homily is frequently included. While the terms “sermon” and “homily” may now be used interchangeably, in early Christian usage a homily was specifically “the kind of preaching where a whole biblical pericope, normally one of the two or three read during the Mass, was explained thoroughly phrase after phrase to the listeners.” ((L.-J. Bataillon, “Approaches to the Study of Medieval Sermons,” Leeds Studies in English NS 11 (1980): 28; repr. La prédication au XIIIe siècle en France et Italie: études et documents (Aldershot: Variorum, 1993), Chp. I.)) In the early Middle Ages these homilies, drawing heavily on the church fathers, began to be compiled into collections (called homiliaries) for liturgical and eventually devotional use. During this turbulent period in the Latin West, homilies filled a vital role as “the main instruments of knowledge of the church fathers: in the absence of libraries, many clerics, monks, nuns and laymen came in contact with patristic thought and the theology of the church through the liturgical homiliary. Much of the spirituality of the early Middle Ages felt the consequences of this.” ((Réginald Grégoire, “Homiliary, II. Liturgical Homiliaries,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (2nd ed.; ed. Angelo Di Berardino et al.; 3 vols.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 2:280.))

Homilies from any given historical era tell us much about how the Bible was both understood and taught. The reading of them also permits us to listen together with our spiritual forbearers to the “sacred eloquence” that was an important part of their worship. In that spirit I translate here a Pentecost homily from the era of the Carolingian Renaissance (late-8th to 9th cent.), a formative period for homiliaries in the West. It is found in a homiliary by Rabanus Maurus (ca. 780-856), abbot of Fulda and later archbishop of Mainz. Rabanus compiled his three-volume work for the personal use of the emperor Lothar I, his political patron, who requested a handy compilation of homilies on the lections to take with him on military campaigns. ((See Raymond Étaix, “L’homéliaire composé par Raban Maur pour l’empereur Lotaire,” Recherches augustiniennes 19 (1984): 211-40; Mayke de Jong, “The Emperor Lothar and His Bibliotheca Historiarum,” in Media latinitas: A Collection of Essays to Mark the Occasion of the Retirement of L. J. Engels (ed. Renée Nip; Instrumenta patristica 28; Steenbrugis: In Abbatia S. Petri; Turnhout: Brepols, 1996), 229-35; and idem, “The Empire as ecclesia: Hrabanus Maurus and Biblical historia for Rulers,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages (ed. Yitzhak Hen and Matthew Innes; Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 191-226.)) Rabanus himself drew his homily from a collection falsely attributed to the Venerable Bede, which is also preserved in a number of other manuscripts, attesting to its popularity. ((On the mss. and editions of the Ps. Bede homiliary, see Henri Barré, Les homéliaires carolingiens de l’Ecole d’Auxerre: authenticité, inventaire, tableaux comparatifs, initia (Studi e testi 225; Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca apostolica Vaticana, 1962), 6-12, and Silvia Cantelli Berarducci, Hrabani Mauri opera exegetica: repertorium fontium 1. Rabano Mauro esegeta, le fonti, i commentari (Instrvmenta patristica et mediaevalia 38; 3 vols.; Turnhout: Brepols, 2006), 1:236-37.)) Typical of this period, it is short and focuses on verse-by-verse commentary, at least for the beginning of the lection. But at the end it becomes more hortatory, encouraging its audience to fast and give alms during the following Ember Week. ((Wenzel discusses this homily as prototypical of early homiletic (as opposed to sermonic) style, contrasting it Rabanus’s own sermon on Pentecost, preserved in a difference collection (PL 110:43-45). See Siegfried Wenzel, “The Use of the Bible in Preaching,” in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, Volume 2: From 600 to 1450 (ed. Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 682-84. Note: The banner image in this post is not from the translated document, but rather from the Rabula Gospels, a sixth-century Syriac gospel book. The image is called “The Descent of the Holy Spirit.))


Rabanus Maurus, Hom. 57 (PL 110:255-56)

Pentecost Sunday

Lection from the Acts of the Apostles: “In those days, when the fifty days were completed, they were all together in the same place. And suddenly there was from heaven a sound like the coming of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting, etc.” (see Acts 2:1-13).

Today’s feast, beloved, venerated in all the world, did the coming of the Holy Spirit consecrate, which flowed down upon the apostles and believers just as they had hoped, as you have heard in the present lection when it was read. “When the fifty days were completed,” it says, “they were all together in the same place” (Acts 2:1); that is, in the upper room where they had gathered together directly after the ascension of the Lord, where they were awaiting the promise of the Holy Spirit. For it is necessary that all those who desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit transcend the domicile of the flesh thought the contemplation of the mind.

“And suddenly there was from heaven a sound like the coming of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). The Lord indeed appeared to the disciples in the similitude of fire, but in the very same figure he worked within them, and he was neither fire nor that sound, but through that which he revealed without he represented that which he performed within.

“And there appeared to them cloven tongues as if of fire” (Acts 2:3). Indeed, the Holy Spirit appeared in fiery tongues, for it makes all whom it fills both to burn and to speak, since the Holy Church, when spread to the ends of the earth, was to speak in the language of every nation.

“And it rested on each one of them” (Acts 2:3). This surely refers to its repose among the saints.

“And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they began to speak in diverse tongues, just as the Holy Spirit gave them to speak” (Acts 2:4). The variety of tongues truly signifies the gifts of various graces. However, it is not wrong to understand that the Holy Spirit first gave the gift of tongues (languages) to humans, by which human wisdom is publicly explained and taught, in order to show how easily the wisdom of God that is on earth is able to make people wise.

“Now there were in Jerusalem Jews living who were devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound a multitude gathered together, and was confused, since each one heard them speaking in his own tongue” (Acts 2:5-6). Truly their speech had in it this power, that when auditors from diverse nations were present there, and received the power to hear and the capacity to understand one and the same speech, each according to his own language—that by these things, beloved, and by the other innumerable writings in which the authority of Holy Scripture gleams, let us be spurred as one to venerate Pentecost, exulting in the honor of the Holy Spirit though which all the universal church is sanctified, with which every rational soul is filled, which inspires faith, is the teacher of knowledge, the fount of love, the seal of purity, and the cause of every virtue. Let the hearts of the faithful rejoice that in all the world one God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—is praised in the confession of all tongues. That sign which appeared in the form of flame continues in operation and office, for the same Spirit of Truth causes the gift of its glory to shine forth in the splendor of its light, and wishes there to be in its temple nothing tenebrous or tepid. Cleansing from such has been conferred upon us though the aid and the doctrine of fasting and almsgiving. For the following of this most salutary observance is a part this venerable day, which all the saints always demonstrated to be most beneficial to them. This we urge you too, with pastoral solicitude, to earnestly celebrate, so that if in the coming days a careless lapse results in some stain, the rebuke of the fast will cast it out and the vow of piety will correct it through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, God forever. Amen.