The Curse Reversed: Pentecost 2005

For Sunday May 15, 2005
Pentecost 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Acts 2:1–21 or Numbers 11:24–30
           Psalm 104:24–35
           1 Corinthians 12:3–13; or Acts 2:1–21
           John 20:19–23 or 7:37–39

Come Holy Spirit banner

           When I was in the ninth grade in a small town in North Carolina, I took Latin with Mrs. Haddock. Rather, Latin took me. My best friend Bill and I both did poorly in Latin, so with the tortured logic of a struggling teenager, my sophomore year I tried French. My junior year I enrolled in Spanish with identical results. In seminary I managed A's in Greek and Hebrew, then in grad school I passed reading exams in French and German. When we moved to Moscow State University (1991–1995) I tackled Russian, but never advanced beyond simple, conversational phrases. All of which makes me an American, for if a tri-lingual person speaks three languages, and a bi-lingual person speaks two languages, a person who speaks one language—even after studying seven of them—must be an American.

           Even if you speak only one language, your accent can betray you. Identifying a person's regional dialect suggests a number of things about them. Having grown up in the south, I can distinguish between redneck slang and an aristocratic drawl. Seminary in Chicago acquainted me with the mid-western twang, and grad school in New Jersey introduced me to nasal northeastern. In the men's room at the County Line BBQ restaurant on San Antonio's famed Riverwalk, I heard a hilarious soundtrack called "How To Talk Texan." Here in California, people love to ridicule "Valley Girl" slang—really, I mean, like, you know! We have also had fierce linguistic, public policy and educational debates about whether "Ebonics" ( is a desecration of standard English (= white) or an affirmation of cultural identity (= black).

Modern Coptic icon of Pentecost
Modern Coptic icon of Pentecost.

           Languages have also been a virtual weapon by which people have exploited one another. In the Old Testament the Gileadites slaughtered 42,000 Ephraimites when the latter were unmasked as the "enemy" simply because they incorrectly pronounced the word "Shibboleth" as "Sibboleth" (Judges 12). In the former Soviet Union, a country that used to be comprised of hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups in eleven time zones from east to west, the government stripped people of their ethnic identities by forcing everyone to speak Russian. Similarly, a hotel worker in Helsinki once remarked to me with pride how although Sweden had ruled Finland for 700 years (1150–1809), "they never could take our language." So too in the Old Testament: the orphan Moses learned Egyptian and its customs, while the Babylonian exiles Daniel and his friends were "re-educated" not only in a new language and literature, they were even given new names.

           Christians have used language as a tool of subjugation and a rationale for division. Early on strife emerged between Greek-speaking Jews who complained that the Aramaic-speakers overlooked their widows in the distribution of food (Acts 6). A thousand years later the Latin-speaking, Catholic west and the Greek-speaking, Orthodox east divided in the Schism of 1054. During the Protestant Reformation the Catholic Church banned translations of the Bible into the everyday vernacular of the common laity: "Bibles were publicly and ceremonially burned, like heretics...As a result [of the 1596 Roman Index ban], between 1567 and 1773 [200 years!], not a single edition of an Italian-language Bible was printed anywhere in the Italian peninsula."1

Mexican icon of Pentecost
Mexican icon of Pentecost.

           How outrageous, then, that in the transition from the earthly days of Jesus to the age of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the new Christian church-community, God featured human language—one of the most salient and ambiguous characteristics of human nature—to symbolize his emerging kingdom. So Luke describes that first Pentecost, which Pentecost believers celebrate this week as they have now for two millennia.

           The term "Pentecost" comes from the Greek word pentekostos, meaning fiftieth, from which one of the most important feasts in the Jewish calendar derives its name. Fifty days after Passover, the Jews celebrated the "Feast of Harvest" (Exodus 23:16) or "Feast of Weeks" (Leviticus 23:15–21). Centuries later, after their exile to Babylon, Jewish Pentecost became one of the great pilgrimage feasts of Judaism, when Diaspora Jews returned to Jerusalem for worship. Since about the second century, Christians have celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after the death and resurrection of Jesus, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, and with His descent the birth of the church. After Christmas and Easter, Pentecost marks the most important celebration of the Christian calendar.

           In this week's lectionary, Luke describes "God-fearing Jews from every nation of the world" as having converged upon Jerusalem for Pentecost; he specifies at least fifteen ethno-linguistic groups. Then, in a miracle either of speaking or of hearing, the Holy Spirit descended upon the first believers, and they "began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them....Each one heard them speaking in his own language...How is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Whatever "speaking in tongues" might mean, at least here it involved known languages.

Maronite icon of Pentecost
Maronite icon of Pentecost.

           When some people in the crowd ridiculed the believers as drunk, Peter explained that a momentous time had arrived in salvation history, a time when God was now calling not only Jews but "all people" (Acts 2:17) to a life of the Spirit in His kingdom. In the epistle for this week, the apostle Paul explained the radical implications of this. Just as the human body is one body with many parts, so too the Christian community draws people from every language and nation to form a single family. In this new community of the Spirit, Paul writes, "we were all baptized by one Spirit—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were given the one Spirit to drink" (1 Corinthians 12:13). The new community of the Spirit celebrates, incorporates, and then transcends barriers of race, social stratification, economics, ethnicity, language, and gender. Diversity without division, and unity without uniformity, ought to characterize the Jesus Way. By the time you reach the end of the Bible and John's Revelation, the reality inaugurated at Pentecost has culminated in a linguistic extravaganza that pictures heaven as populated by "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Revelation 7:9). Pentecost and the birth of the new unified-but-diverse Jesus-community thus reverses the curse of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9), where human language divided humanity in a cacophony of confusion.

           In one of the most widely used hymns in the church, Veni, Creator Spiritus, attributed to the German Benedictine monk and priest Rabanus Maurus (776–856), Christians around the world have cried out, "Come, Creator Spirit!" Any time is a good time to pray that prayer, but no time is more appropriate than Pentecost Sunday.

[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2004), p. 394.