Accende lumen sensibus: infunde amorem cordibus: infirma nostri corporis virtute firmans perpeti.
Today we celebrate the feast of Pentecost: that day when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples, they spoke the Word of God, and thousands joined the church. I was struck anew, while listening to Acts 2 this morning, by how the Holy Spirit manifests His presence in the apostles’ speech:
And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. …Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and 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 Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Here’s what struck me: in Sunday school classes in years gone by, our Pentecost lesson inevitably featured a picture of the 12 apostles, each with his tongue of fire, and perhaps a few other people standing around looking flummoxed. I had always understood that there was an apostle for each language – Philip would get Phrygian on account of the Ph sound, Matthias would speak with the Medes, etc. – but for the first time I actually counted the number of languages represented. And unless a few groups share tongues, there are a few more than a dozen of them listed. This suggests to me that either a) “they” refers not only to the 12 but perhaps to some of the 120 brothers of Acts 1:15, so there’d be an individual speaking in every tongue understood by the Jews there, or b) that each apostle, speaking a single word, was understood by 15 or so different nationalities.
(At this point, perhaps I should mention that I don’t recall ever hearing any commentary or examination of which of these possibilities in fact occurred. If you know of any, please direct me to them!)
Obviously the Holy Spirit’s power makes either possible, but the second intrigues me more. Imagine the apostles prophesying in the Spirit’s words, with power such that no listening ear could resist comprehending it. Imagine standing next to a Frenchman, a Russian, and a Japanese fellow, none of whom you can understand, all listening to the same guy. How long would it take to notice the other three attending to his words because his speech, uniquely, is comprehensible to each of you? Well might you ask “What does this mean?”
Yet I’m not wholly in sympathy with the onlookers (or onhearers, really), since I laugh at them for answering their own question. “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” What does it mean? It means that these men you just accused of drunkenness are God’s vehicle for showing His power, and your own ears have heard the proof. It means that they are inspired, not merely with the breath of physical life but with the life-giving Word. It means, among all else, that the God who sundered speech at Babel can bring it back together again, as beads of mercury flow back into the whole, or as shards are forged anew in the fire to renew the blade.
As someone who is fascinated by Babel, I am even more fascinated by how the Holy Spirit’s power brings sense with it, and babbling to an end. Once upon a time, Men declared that they would build a tower to the heavens, and as they set to work, God noted that nothing would be too difficult for them. I wonder what he meant by that, and what good a ziggurat would do them, or whether Genesis 11 excises some detail of what arcane thing they sought. I wonder if He was determined that, having separated themselves and their desires from Him, men would not long remain united in purpose with each other. I wonder, Heaven having split our languages apart, what truths are revealed in one language that are revealed differently, or not at all, in another. Shall the polyglot have some better understanding of God due to his study? What about the philologist? Ought the Babelfish to look more sinister now, since it undoes Babel without the aid of the Paraclete? What truth did Charlemagne know when he said “to speak a second language is to have a second soul”?
Per te sciamus da Patrem, noscamus atque Filium; Teque utriusque Spiritum credamus omni tempore.
Deo Patri sit gloria, et Filio, qui a mortuis surrexit, ac Paraclito, in saeculorum saecula.