Sunday, June 12, 2011


Acts 2:1-11 / John 14:23-31

Faced as we are with the diversity of tongues in the world, and with that diversity, a multitude of cultures and ways of understanding the world at least as great as the number of languages, and no doubt even greater, we are normally tempted to one of two positions. On the one hand, we might be tempted to promote one language or one culture as the sole way in which people ought to come to the truth. Our choice of which language that might be could be the result of simple chauvinism (asserting our own language as best), it could be an appeal to the historical prominence of a given language (say, promoting Latin or English), or it could be a desire to set aside any actual, living language in favor of a supposed "international" language which all could speak (such as Esperanto). On this view, our variety of cultures and modes of expression are, in the end, barriers, albeit vincible ones, to communication. Coming to truth, on this view, except for the privileged few whose natural language is selected as the lingua franca, means abandoning our best way of understanding and being understood, letting go of whatever native genius there might be in our received way of understanding for the sake of a universal, and thus somehow more "truthful," language.

On the other hand, we might be tempted to regard true and full communication across languages and across cultures as impossible. We might think of language and culture as, in some sense, properly basic, irreducible to something else, and as such concede that what is communicated in one language can never, truly, be made known in another. On this view, perhaps even more so than the other, culture and language are barriers to the communication of truth. Or, said more precisely, truth is itself subordinate to culture and language, and thus the hope of there being some one thing, some one claim, that might be held equally across all languages is understood to be in vain. While such a view leaves us intact in our native language, it does so only at the price of barring forever any fundamental communication outside of or across the differences that characterize human experience.

The descent of the Holy Spirit, however, puts a lie to both of these claims. Empowered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the Apostles preached the Gospel to a dizzying variety of languages and cultures who were visiting Jerusalem. Yet, by the power of that same Spirit, they heard every man their own tongue wherein they were born. That is, the same Gospel the same proclamation, made by Galileans in their characteristically Galilean way, was, without ceasing to be a Galilean proclamation, nonetheless perfectly intelligible to Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Lybia about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews also, and Proselytes, Cretes and Arabians.

What is astounding here is that the miracle of Pentecost, the beginning of the new age inaugurated by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit not on this or that person by prodigally on a large crowd representing the diversity of the known world, did not simply reverse the penalty of Babel. It was not as though this international gathering, with their diversity of languages and modes of thought, we somehow delivered from that diversity into a one, new or ancient, single tongue and celestial culture, abandoning who they were and their inherited modes of thought in order to receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nor was it that the Good News proclaimed by these Galileans as received by the Galilean Word made flesh, needed somehow to be supplemented, or corrected, or accompanied, by intrinsically alien ways of thinking and being. Rather, by the power of the Spirit, the truth of the Gospel found itself heard and manifest to each through the native genius of his own tongue, each capable of delivering, even in what humanly seemed to be insuperable differences, the very same Good News.

This truth ought to remind us about our own evangelism today. On the one hand, we must never proclaim the Gospel as though presuming that those who receive it, in order to receive it, must abandon who and what they are to be successfully a disciple of Jesus Christ. Pentecost reminds us that there is no language, no culture that is not capable, through its own native genius, of bearing the message of the Gospel. On the other hand, and for the very same reason, we must reject the worry that in spreading the Gospel, we are somehow asking people to lose something precious in their culture and their language. It is of course true that we never receive the Good News of Jesus Christ without being transformed, without dying to the old man so as to rise again in the new. Even so, this dying and rising, this being born again, simply makes clear to us what was good and wholesome in our speaking and our thinking, in our culture, and what was ultimately an obstacle to our flourishing.

In Pentecost, we see in a way only hinted at before, that God who revealed himself in our human nature in a specific place, in a specific time, to a confined and finite number of people, in doing so did not render the Good News of salvation distant to those from far away who speak different tongues. In the Spirit, we encounter a unity beyond any we might dared have hoped for, a unity that joins us without remainder to our fellow men, without in the slightest compromising the unique qualities that set us apart. This is the Gospel of love announced on that fiftieth day of the Resurrection long ago, and it is the same Gospel we proclaim today.

Come. O Holy Ghost, fill the hearts of Thy faithful: and kindle in them the fire of Thy love.

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