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Beyond Babel:
Pentecost Sunday

For Sunday May 27, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Acts 2:1–21 or Genesis 11:1–9
           Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
           Romans 8:14–17 or Acts 2:1–21
           John 14:8–17, (25–27)

South African Zulus.
South African Zulus.

           In 1951 when the linguist Richard Pittman (1915–1998) produced a mimeographed list of the known languages of the world, his "ethnologue," as he called it, identified 46 languages. Today's massive 15th edition of Ethnologue documents 7,299 known languages, including 103 languages previously unidentified in the 14th edition of 2000. From A Fala de Xálima, which is spoken in Portugal, to Zyudin, a dialect of Komi-Permynk spoken in the Urals, Ethnologue has distinguished itself as the best single source of information about all the known languages of the world (including 497 languages threatened with "language death" because they have fewer than 50 speakers).

           Language is fascinating, but it can also be lethal. Throughout history people have subjugated one another because of language. In the Old Testament the Gileadites slaughtered 42,000 Ephraimites when the latter were exposed as the "enemy" because they incorrectly pronounced the word "Shibboleth" as "Sibboleth" (Judges 12). The orphan Moses learned Egyptian and its customs, while the Babylonian exiles Daniel and his three friends were not only "re-educated" in a new language and literature, but also given new names.

           In the former Soviet Union where I lived for four years, 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. Today the shoe is on the other foot and ethnic Russians who live in the former republics are sometimes forced to speak languages like Lithuanian or Latvian in school. A hotel worker in Helsinki once remarked to me with pride how although Sweden had dominated Finland for 700 years (1150–1809), "they never could take our 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 we've had fierce linguistic, public policy and educational debates about whether "Ebonics" is a desecration of standard English or an affirmation of cultural identity.

An Inuit from Baffin Island, Canada.
An Inuit from Baffin Island, Canada.

           Language has divided Christians, too. Among the earliest followers of Jesus 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 (mainly) 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.

           Given the volatile dynamics of language, it's remarkable that in the transition from the earthly days of Jesus to the age of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church, God featured human language—one of humanity's most salient and divisive characteristics—to symbolize his kingdom community. In the book of Acts Luke describes the first Pentecost, which Pentecost believers celebrate this Sunday as they have 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 the descent of the Spirit the birth of the church. After Christmas and Easter, Pentecost marks the most important celebration of the Christian calendar.

           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 who were present. Jesus had instructed his followers not to leave Jerusalem until they had received the Spirit whom He had promised (Acts 1:4). In Luke's narrative, a small band of 120 followers of Jesus were “constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14) together in an upper room. Suddenly, the sounds of violent winds and the visions of tongues of fire fell upon them, and “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4). In a miracle of speaking and/or of hearing, "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, on this occasion it involved known languages.

Nepalese woman.
Nepalese woman.

           Some people in the crowd ridiculed the believers as drunk, but Peter explained that a momentous time had arrived in the history of salvation, a time when God was now calling not only Jews but "all people" (Acts 2:17) to a life full of the Spirit. At its best, this 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 community.

           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). In those first pages of the Bible language divided humanity in a cacophony of confusion. In the last pages of the Bible, the new community that began at Pentecost culminates in a linguistic extravaganza of "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language" (Revelation 7:9). In that heavenly vision, all 7,299 known language groups will complete the unity of all humanity rather than destroy it.

           In one of the most widely used hymns of the church, Veni, Creator Spiritus, attributed to the German Benedictine monk and priest Rabanus Maurus (776–856), Christians around the world have prayed, "Come, Creator Spirit!"

Come, Holy Spirit, Creator blest,
and in our souls take up Thy rest;
come with Thy grace and heavenly aid
to fill the hearts which Thou hast made.

O comforter, to Thee we cry,
O heavenly gift of God Most High,
O fount of life and fire of love,
and sweet anointing from above.

Thou in Thy sevenfold gifts are known;
Thou, finger of God's hand we own;
Thou, promise of the Father, Thou
Who dost the tongue with power imbue.

Kindle our sense from above,
and make our hearts o'erflow with love;
with patience firm and virtue high
the weakness of our flesh supply.

Far from us drive the foe we dread,
and grant us Thy peace instead;
so shall we not, with Thee for guide,
turn from the path of life aside.

Oh, may Thy grace on us bestow
the Father and the Son to know;
and Thee, through endless times confessed,
of both the eternal Spirit blest.

Now to the Father and the Son,
Who rose from death, be glory given,
with Thou, O Holy Comforter,
henceforth by all in earth and heaven.

Any time is a good time to pray that prayer, but no time is more appropriate than Pentecost Sunday.

For further reflection

* What have been your experiences of linguistic diversity, whether positive or negative?
* Was Pentecost a miracle of speaking, or one of hearing and understanding?
* Consider the gift of the Spirit as the gift of truly hearing and understanding each other, in contrast to speaking to each other.
* According to the United Bible Societies, there are now over 2,370 languages in which at least one book of the Bible has been published, far short of the 7,299 languages of the Ethnologue, but enough to include the primary means of communication of over 90% of the world’s population.
* See the remarkable film Babel, the title of which comes from Genesis 11.

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