Greek Philosopher Aristotle believed the four natural elements on earth could be transformed into one another. This theory became known as the Four Elements Theory. These four elements, according to Aristotle, are wind (air), earth, water, and fire. Although this became a basic, almost primitive, idea which preceded the discovery of chemical change, it also helps us understand the Trinity. It all begins in the Upper Room. It all begins at Pentecost.
The Upper Room should be familiar, since it is the location where Jesus instituted the Eucharist just prior to his crucifixion. The Upper Room is significant because it not only is the location where Christ institutes the Holy Eucharist, it is also the location where the birth of the Church happened.
“When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?’ Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?” (Acts 2:1-8)
It is often hard to explain the Trinity to someone who does not believe in it. Christians find themselves struggling for an example, an image, or something which a human can relate to in order to understand the holy Trinity. Yet, it seems impossible at times. Many have used the example of water turning to ice and gas and back to liquid. Others choose to use the idea, often incorrectly associated with St. Patrick, of the four-leaf clover. I believe, on the other hand, a great example of explaining the Trinity shows up here at Pentecost in the book of Acts.
Let’s break down this account of Pentecost using Aristotle’s four basic elements theory.
Wind: In Acts 2:2 we see “and suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.” Sacred Scripture often highlights or shows the Holy Spirit as a breath or a wind. For example, we see the Holy Spirit portrayed as a breath when Jesus appears to the apostles in the Upper Room following his Resurrection. “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
There is a difference, however, we must look at when viewing these two incidents. When Jesus breathes on the apostles the Holy Spirit and gives them the authority for what will eventually become the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it appears to be a subtle and gentle breath. A breath of love. A breath of authority, yet gentleness. On the contrary, when the wind appears at Pentecost it is full of power. It comes in might and strength. It gets everyone’s attention. It also reminds us of the power of the Holy Spirit and that it must not be ignored.
Fire: “Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.” (Acts 2:3)
This is the appearance of the gift of tongues, which essentially unites the division created at the Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. It was pride of the people that caused God to divide mankind into languages at Babel. It is obedience and humility at Pentecost which heals that division. With the Holy Spirit at Pentecost comes unity, fellowship, obedience, and love. It causes the languages, which once separated individuals, to be understood and spoken to bring about unity.
Earth: In order to understand the Earth aspect of Pentecost, we have to look a bit deeper than just the obvious scripture. It is not clearly outlined in Scripture, but it is understood in relation to God’s creation. In Greek, “Pentecost” means “Fiftieth Day”. Pentecost was originally a Jewish harvest festival that marked the 50 days following the Passover which brought about offering first fruits to God as thanksgiving. Pope Benedict gives us a beautiful reminder and explanation of how this correlates with earth. “From its earliest prehistory (Pentecost) has been a feast of harvest. In Palestine the crops were ripe in May; Pentecost was the thanksgiving for the grain harvest. Man sees the fruitfulness which results from the interplay of heaven and earth as the miracle by which he lives, and he acknowledges that gratitude is the appropriate response to this miracle…Has this become meaningless today? If we think of ‘Holy Spirit’ only in terms of Christian inwardness and of ‘harvest’ only in terms of technology and commerce, our view of the world has become schizophrenic. At Pentecost the church prays a verse from the psalms which runs: Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth. Initially this refers to the creative Spirit which has called the world into being and maintains it in being. It is important to have a new reality of this at Pentecost: The Holy Spirit who came down upon the apostles is the same Spirit who fashioned the world.” (Seek That Which is Above, 79-80)
Water: The image of water shows up as a result of Pentecost. Water is the fruit of wind and fire. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. “Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…..Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.” (Acts 2:38, 41)
Just as the feast initially celebrated the fruits of the earth, Pentecost brings about fruits for the Church. The Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments of the Church. The first sacrament received is that of baptism. It initiates us into the Church. It makes us a member of the Church and incorporates us into the body of Christ. It washes away original sin and enables us to be open and receptive to the Holy Spirit. It enables us to live a life of discipleship and obedience to Christ. It provides us the ability to love Christ. When the Holy Spirit moved in the apostles and empowered them, the power moved others to follow Christ because of the preaching of Christ. It also provides a deja’vu moment, bringing to mind the baptism of Jesus Christ by St. John the Baptist. Now that’s fruit! That is truly a harvest which should result in enormous thanksgiving.
So, it is at Pentecost that we say Happy Birthday to the Church. It is also at Pentecost we see a correlation of how we can view the workings of the Trinity in the life of the Church and the believer. God the Father is often viewed as the Creator of the world in Genesis. From the time of creation of the earth we see the workings of the Trinity. We see “God” creating the earth and all that is in it through Genesis 1. However, we see a hint at the Trinity being involved in it all at Genesis 1:26 “Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” God the Father acknowledges and commands us to listen to Christ at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. God the Father is seen relating to fire when God speaks to Moses through the burning bush in Exodus 3:1-17. We see wind also appearing, once again, when the Trinity is at work in Genesis 1:2, “the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.”
The Trinity once again shows up at Pentecost and we see the birth of the Church. The Church is born with power, unity, love, and action.