This is the second of a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts. Acts is a book of beginnings and the focus of this reflection is on what began at Pentecost through the gift of language.
This is Acts 2:1-6 (I’m using the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition):
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 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. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5 Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
In short, Luke describes a violent rush of wind that shakes up our settled ways of living and possessing. Life can never be the same again. Settled structures are blown apart and the apostles together with some women and some others (Acts 1:14) are blown to join thousands of others through the gift of language and a miracle of hearing.
Language has always been a barrier between people (from Babel) but this miracle brings people together who would have been stranger to each other. Here words are translated by love and the words are taken to heart by people from all parts of the world – “here at last, someone speaking my language”. Alongside that violent rush of wind there is this enormous sigh of people understood – the sigh of relief that here at last, someone is speaking my language.
What does it take to speak the language that makes sense to others, that makes their heart sing? To speak to people in a language they understand requires us to keep silent while we listen to them, while we learn from their words and the emotional history that lies behind them. To speak to a people in any way that makes sense requires an emotional intelligence and empathy that inspires the confidence in one anther that we have something worth saying to one another, and worth hearing from one another. Words on their own will never do because body language communicates far more in the bearing we bring to our words. For a miracle of hearing there needs to be nothing short of love.
The language of vulnerable people is often lost on people of power and many a language has been lost. The English used to forbid the use of Irish in the Irish pig markets insisting that English is the perfect language to sell pigs in. “That English is the perfect language to sell pigs in” is a line from Michael Hartnett’s poem A Farewell to English in which he announced to the world that he would no longer write in English. He did this as resistance and as a way of treasuring the Irish language.
When we think of the languages we are taught in school, they are all the languages of empire, the languages that are supposed to help us get on in life, that help us to get jobs in successful companies. Compulsory language education takes many forms. In the UK language education is benign, but Willie James Jennings writing from an Afro-American perspective, invites us to imagine something far more sinister. In his commentary on Acts he writes: “Imagine centuries of submission and internalised hatred of mother tongues and in the quiet spaces of many villages, many homes, women, men and children practising these new enlightened languages not by choice but by force.”
What of those who insist on the language of empire, who insist on the Queen’s English (should that now be King’s English)? They deprive people of language and understanding : their values, practical wisdom and subtlety are imperilled by a colonising power which conscripts the other for empire. They rob people of their past, present and future. They are responsible for the loss of language. Language makes the store and story of history and all of us want to have ourselves heard and understood. But so many have lost their language, and with it the store and story of their histories.
The book of Genesis sees languages as the curse of empire builders. The story of the Tower of Babel is a story of powerful people thinking they could build all the way to heaven. The seeds of confusion that were sown through their different languages were intended to prevent them getting above themselves.
The way of the empire is not the way of the Spirit or of Spirited people. The Spirit uses the languages long forgotten by the powers that be. In the beginning of this book of beginnings which is Acts Luke goes into detail where everyone has come from. Often readers skip over this long list. They shouldn’t because everyone of them heard the disciples speaking their language. Every one counts and not one of them should be overlooked by us readers.
Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Acts 2:7-11.
We might add other language barriers that would have been present – the young, the old, men, women, deaf, disabled – “we all hear them speaking our language”. This is a beginning for all of them. Now that they have heard God spoken to their heart they now have their own language for God-talk to take back home to their villages and communities. That was a beginning for them.
But we live in a world where divisions won’t go away, where little empires everywhere build their walled communities of exclusion. How do we make sense to one another through the thick walls of separation and in environments made increasingly hostile? What is the way of the Spirit of God? There is a promising beginning in this miracle of Pentecost. The gift of language, the gift in their tongues, is not for one way communication. It is a gift which enables the believers to join others and to enter into their language and life. It is for the act of living together, for the art of heartfelt conversation and for the creation of new relationships.
This is the way with God, embracing others with a love that is utterly understandable. Love translates, and only translates as good news.
Acts 2:1-21 is read in churches at Pentecost.