Festival of Pentecost (4 June 2018)
JoAnn A. Post
When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ”
In the late 1880’s, after the territory of Alaska was purchased from Russia, indigenous peoples—pejoratively called “Eskimos”— were violently removed from their villages, beliefs and languages by the U.S. government. We called it “assimilation” and “education;” we called it deepening the “melting pot.” Placing native children in boarding schools far from home and family was deemed a chance at a better life for those “savages.” Never mind that those “savages” had enjoyed a rich cultural, religious and social life, respectful of nature for more than 10,000 years without any help from us. But we meant their quick and forced absorption into American culture as a gift. After all, who would want to speak a native language, eat local foods and worship animals when you could speak English and eat Velveeta and become Episcopalians?
When we lived in Alaska more than 30 years ago, we knew some of those displaced children grown to adulthood. Their stories of childhood abuse, hunger, and isolation are enough to make a grown woman weep—and a nation apologize. Assimilation in Alaska was an experiment that failed on almost every level. One of the many disastrous results of that failed frozen “gift” is that some of the languages in which indigenous Alaskans, for millennia, engaged in commerce, worshipped their gods, sang to the children and loved their spouses are dead.
Efforts to revive those indigenous languages are sometimes launched, but finding a native speaker of Eyak or Han is as likely as finding a unicorn at the grocery store. Age-old languages died along with their broken-hearted elderly speakers.
To say that we read today of the “First” Pentecost is a misnomer. There had been many hundreds of Pentecost’s before that polyglottal day in Jerusalem. For 35 centuries since Jews have gathered 50 days after Passover to celebrate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; in “Christian Speak,” the day God gave Moses the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Pentecost or “Shavuot” (its Hebrew name) is what we would call a “lesser festival.”. But circa 30 BCE, shortly after Jesus ascended to the Father and while his 120 disciples and friends waited in Jerusalem for the promised power, the city would have been packed with revelers.
That the day the Spirit assaulted them also happened to be a Jewish festival did not occur to those early believers until later. They were probably marking it as a lesser festival—a shared festive meal and particular prayers. But suddenly (the text says “violently”) they were accosted by a hurricane that lit their heads on fire. Words poured from their mouths, words in languages those back country fisherman had never heard, let alone knew how to speak. How did they do that?
It wasn’t the wind or the flame that brought crowds running. It was the noise. The cacophony of 120 startled commoners spewing words they did not know was a sight, a sound to behold. Their quickly-assembled audience, though, was momentarily absolutely silent. Some of them were multi-generational residents of the city, but others of them immigrants with green cards, those “Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” And though they would have all shared the common language of the city—Hebrew—they spoke different languages, their own languages, at home. Parthian. Greek. Arabic. Latin.
Seems an oddly intricate miracle. When we travel to other parts of the world, we can almost always find someone who speaks English. It is, after all, the world’s language. And when immigrants settle among us, they quickly learn to speak “our” language, though often retaining their own dialect at home. It was that way in Jerusalem. Hebrew was the common language of that part of the world in the 1st century. Everyone knew at least a little. So why weren’t the disciples prompted to preach in Hebrew?
The assembled crowd would have been impressed enough with the apostles’ flaming hairdos to listen for a while. And they would have understood if the apostles had all spoken in Hebrew.
But they didn’t. Greek islanders heard Cretan. Onlookers from Cairo listened in Coptic. Visitors from China were schooled through Cantonese. Immigrants from Nineveh learned God’s mighty deeds of power in Sumerian. Had a Silicon Valley software designer chanced on the scene, the disciples would have communicated in binary code. Should a political pundit wander by? Twitter.
“Each of them heard them speaking in the native language of each.”
God knew, though those rattled multi-lingual disciples did not, that language is more than the mere conveyance of information. Hebrew might have taught them, but to hear God’s name, God’s love in their own languages changed them. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a person in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to a person in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2017)
The words we speak and the way we speak them is more than a convention or a tool. The words we choose reveal our hearts. And to touch the heart of another, we learn their language.
A previous parish had been established by Eastern European immigrants in the 1890’s. Though the charter members were long dead by the time I served there, we still had a large contingent of elderly Czechs, Poles and Slavs among us. Carl, an elderly man, loved to tell about meeting his wife, who had also fled Europe to the U.S. after the war. They met at a bar after work, each noticing the other across the room. But Carl spoke only Polish and she spoke only German. “How did you talk to each other if you didn’t share the same language?” I once asked. He winked. “We always spoke the same language about things that mattered.” And then slyly, “Some things don’t need words.”
After his wife died and his mind grew less sharp, he lapsed more and more often into his native tongue. And always when he prayed it was in the language of his childhood. When he prayed, both he and God were Polish.
Language is more than words. It comes from—and reveals—the heart.
What language should we use to tell of God’s deeds of power? The words and hymns and ways that brought so many of us to faith now seem to fall on deaf ears and cold hearts. We could force people to listen, as we forced native Alaskan children to meet God on our terms. We could be like the fabled terrible tourist who, when confronted by a waiter who doesn’t speak his language, simply says it louder. “I said TWO olives!”
In the prayer of the day we prayed that God would “open the hearts of your faithful people by sending us your Holy Spirit.” It will have to be the Holy Spirit who schools us, who teaches us words to say and gathers the people who need to hear them. We cannot force anyone to love Jesus, and shouting the same old words a little louder won’t convince anyone either.
We pray today that the Holy Spirit would light a fire under us, in us, would fill our mouths with words others want to hear. We pray that we will learn to speak the native language of each and, in that way, tell them about God’s deeds of power.