“We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." Acts 2:11
“A little bird told me”—that was one of my grandmother’s favorite phrases. My grandparents lived a mile down the road from us, and many an evening she and Pap would come over after supper. She usually brought “guess packages”—paper bags with some crackers or cookies, maybe even a bottle of pop—things my mother rarely bought. Before we could put in our guesses and win the prize, she wanted a little chat. Small boys, especially when distracted by the prospect of a cookie, are not very conversational, and she would prompt us a bit: “a little bird told me that someone had two base hits last night.” “A little bird told me that someone threw a fit about taking out the garbage.”
Of course, we all knew well that my mother was the “little bird,” and I probably thought that “little bird” was a special nickname for my mother at first. But it’s an old saying, though I don’t hear it much anymore. I have a source of secret knowledge, it means. You don’t need to know how I learned it, but I know something important about you.
It’s quite a strange phrase, really—talking birds revealing hidden messages. Some folklorists attribute it to an ancient tale about King Solomon, and there’s also an obscure Norse legend about a hero who tastes dragon’s blood and can immediately comprehend the speech of the birds—it turns up in the second act of one of Wagner’s operas. The phrase definitely predates Twitter, though. Most scholars attribute it to an offhand remark in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which warns against cursing the king in your bedchamber, lest “a bird on the wing report what you say.”
I had hoped the phrase was related to the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down like a dove to bring power to the apostles’ words. I had hoped it pointed to the dramatic moment recounted in our Epistle, when the message was delivered directly to the speakers of many different languages. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be the case. And the Holy Spirit is emphatically not, it must be said, “a little bird,” for He bears on His wings the life-power of our Lord’s resurrection. Through His work sins are forgiven, souls are reborn, we are united with God and raised from the dead to eternal life. No, not “a little bird” at all.
But the Holy Spirit does tell us things, and in a direct and personal way. The Holy Spirit speaks to us from the inside, granting us a kind of inner confidence, an ability to lay hold on God’s truth without wavering. The Prayer Book’s collect for this day points directly to this task, which is presented in Scripture as the first task of the Holy Spirit: O God,” it begins, “who on this day didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people by sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit certainly gave St. Peter a deep assurance of Christ’s resurrection and the boldness to call the assembled crowds to repentance and faith. But even more importantly, He gave those who heard Peter the ability to understand that message and believe it. The Pentecost miracle is primarily a miracle of reception. Saint Peter speaks, but the Holy Spirit teaches and then grants the ability to believe, so that three thousand in the crowd turned to Christ in faith and were baptized that day.
Through the Holy Spirit’s work, God speaks directly to us. As light fills a room, the Holy Spirit helps us to distinguish truth from falsehood and to know clearly who God is and what He intends for us. This truth about the Holy Spirit’s work has caused more than a bit of trouble in the church down the ages. It doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit is behind every religious idea that may come into our heads. It’s also a mistake to associate the Holy Spirit’s work with the preponderance of public opinion, what is often called “the spirit of the age.” Some of the religious ideas and inner convictions we receive are mere human ruminations and some are the work of evil spirits, who aim to confuse and corrupt God’s people. Some are simply fashionable ideas which can have little to do with the teaching of the Scriptures. Saint Paul says that the “discernment of spirits,” the ability to distinguish the Holy Spirit’s communications from other sorts of ideas is a gift God shares with His church, and an important one at that.
The Holy Spirit’s true work can be distinguished by the fact that He points us always to Christ. It is Christ who sends the Spirit upon His Church, to bring the good news of the resurrection to life in the hearts of His people. It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask the Holy Spirit to amplify your ability to understand German philosophy or the tax code. But His principal curriculum is the Christian Gospel, the word of life that sets souls free from sin and death.
We can only understand that word of the Gospel through the Spirit’s influence. We cannot be argued into faith. It comes, for each of us, as a kind of letting go, as the Spirit delivers us into a steady conviction that this is true, and true for me. Struggle and doubt, even severe doubt, can have their place in that process of coming to faith. But mature faith is a kind of resting, a knowledge that brings clarity and joy.
If you struggle to believe, or feel that your faith remains superficial, you should pray for the Holy Spirit’s help. If you want to speak with someone about Christ, and you don’t know what words to use, ask that the Holy Spirit show you what to say and to create in the person to whom you will speak an ability to hear and respond.
People sometimes tell me that they would like to talk to a neighbor or a relative about Christ, but they don’t know how the person will take it. They’re afraid of using the wrong words. I often try to assure them that none of us ever has all the right things to say. If the transmission of the Gospel relied upon human eloquence, the church would have died out centuries ago. You will be speaking, I tell them, but if they seem to hear you, it’s evidence that they’re really listening to someone else. A little bird has told them—the Mighty Dove of the Holy Spirit--who descends in power to teach the hearts of the faithful.