A strong driving wind-like sound filling the house; tongues of fire appearing, suddenly speaking in different languages. The Apostles emboldened and empowered by the Spirit. The crowds confused, astounded, amazed. This is Pentecost.
One of the amazing works of the Spirit is that people gathered from all over the world – Partians, Medes, folks from Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Egypt, Rome and all manner of other places. They are bewildered, trying to figure out – “… how does each of us hear them in our native language?”
I can remember someone offering that Pentecost was the reversal of Babel, the Old Testament story in which God divided and scattered human communities by multiplying their languages. But in fact, Pentecost didn’t reverse Babel. The languages are still many. To be clear, when the Holy Spirit came, he did not restore humanity to a common language. When these apostles went out to evangelize and spread the good news – they had to learn the local language.
If you speak more than one language, you understand that a language holds far more than the sum of its grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. Languages carry the history and weight of an originating culture, it stories, spirituality, idiomatic expressions, and so much more. They say when you dream in another language and gain a sense of its poetry – then, you understand the language. To speak another language is to see differently, hear differently, process differently, and see the world with new eyes. Which language best captures poetic form? Or hope? Or love? Or the Spirit of God.
I think it is a trick question. If you hope, love, and are filled with the Holy Spirit in your native language, then that is the best language…. for you. What about the other person – the Partians, the Medes, Cappadocians, Egyptians, and others? There is no such thing as a perfect translation from your best language.
Pentecost did not reverse Babel. Nope. The Holy Spirit wove the diversity of many prefect languages into the very fabric of the Church. From that day forward, all languages are worthy of God’s stories, all languages can carry the good news – and when they do… all languages are holy. And it takes all these languages to carry the Good News of salvation to the ends of the earth.
It takes all these languages to ever more completely understand the Good News.
On that Pentecost day of long ago, the disciples began to speak in foreign languages, the crowds gathered outside were confused, astounded, and amazed. They weren’t confused by the message itself – that came through in perfect clarity. What confused them was the fact of their comprehension in their own language. It naturally leads to questions.
Who is this God of the Christians – this God who would speak to us – not in a secret language of the heavens, but in our own mother-tongues? Who is this God who welcomes us in the language of our birthplace, our childhood, our parents? Who is this God who bids us come and feel at home? Who is this God who bids us to cross the barriers of our differences?
And that day some 3,000 were converted, baptized, and took their places in the great Exodus of faith going to the ends of the Earth.
And if you are an Apostles, you now see what is necessary; is commanded. Just as at the Last Supper, Jesus came down from the table to be servant as He washed the disciple’s feet, so to must the disciples come down from Pentecost and be servant. To learn another language is to make oneself a learner, a servant, a beggar – dependent upon the mercy of others.
And now these servants must rise to throw open the windows of the Upper Room and to feel the breath of God fill their sails and push them out into the world. No longer can the church huddle in the Upper Room, crowded together in sameness and safety. The Holy Spirit had spoken. Silence is no longer an option; a single language is no longer an option.
In the end, the Pentecost story required movement and change on all sides. To speak and to listen; suspend disbelief, follow wonder rather than fear. Everyone has to widen their circles, and welcome strangers with odd accents into their midst. Not all will manage it. Some sent will not go because they do not trust. Some received will scatter at the first sign of difference. But then as now, some will speak, and some will listen, and into those astonishing exchanges, God breaths fresh life.
Something happens when we speak and hear each other’s languages — be they cultural, political, racial or liturgical. We experience the limits of our own perspectives. We learn curiosity. We discover that God’s story is far too nuanced for a single expression.
It is no small thing this Solemnity of Pentecost. In the face of difference, God compelled his people to connect. From the beginning, the call has been and ever will be to hear what the Spirit is saying and to cross over to where God is doing something new.
This is Pentecost.