Jesus had ascended to the Father only a few days before. The disciples were now gathered together in the upper room of a house. They were still unsure, still wondering about Jesus’ final commission to them to go out and ‘baptize the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’
Jesus had ascended to the Father only a few days before. The disciples were now gathered together in the upper room of a house. They were still unsure, still wondering about Jesus’ final commission to them to go out and ʺbaptize the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.ʺ They understood the intent in their minds, but their hearts still needed clarity and encouragement. They were being asked to do something that none of them, as yet, felt competent to do. Yes, they had seen Jesus in action, had heard his words and thought about them deeply. They understood that Jesus wanted them to do the very things he had done. But how? They longed for the Advocate that Jesus had promised to send them, the one who would ʺteach them everything they would need to know about the truth.ʺ But how long would they have to wait?
ʺWhen the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.ʺ
Can you imaging the intense feeling in that room at that moment? The Advocate had come. At that moment they not only felt his Presence, but it was no longer in the usual external sense; they felt his Presence descend upon them, indeed, they felt his Presence within them. Now, the mission to go out to the world and to baptize the peoples became possible.
The centerpiece of this message, the message of salvation, was meant for all people, for all of the children of God, Jews and Gentiles alike. Because of the coming of the Spirit, they found themselves able to speak to all peoples in their own tongues. This was their commissioning: ʺTongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.ʺ (Acts 2:3-4) What a powerful image, indeed. There is so much of great importance in this image, this Pentecost gift.
The first thing that comes to mind is that this gift of tongues proves that the message of God is universal. Since the peoples of the world are separated by language, even more than culture, and because language is the medium through which the message must be disseminated, the ability to speak the languages of each local people was an absolute necessity. Though the message of salvation is universal, true in all places and in all times, it must be presented to the peoples in their own languages. Speaking in tongues is not just a spiritual gift given to an individual believer for his or her own edification. Indeed, speaking in tongues, without interpretation, is mere babble. To be able to speak another people’s language fluently is the means through which the Holy Spirit and all of the truths of God can be given to those who are hungry for it, or ignorant of it. In this passage concerning the Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, we see the importance of being able to speak the message of Jesus Christ to all the peoples of the world in their own language, in their own tongue.
Christ came for all peoples. He sent the Apostles out, after the intense personal experience of that Pentecost, to take that message of love, compassion, forgiveness and salvation to all the ends of the earth. But here is a challenge for all of us too. Sometimes we get so filled with the joy of our faith that we go rushing out to speak of it and its source to those around us too quickly. Those around us may speak the same language as we do, but they don’t understand what we are saying to them.
The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, understood this in his ʺAllegory of the Caveʺ, the 7th book in his work called, ʺThe Republic.ʺ He writes in the Allegory of the Cave about those who have left the darkness of the cave and its ignorance and who have struggled courageously to finally leave the cave and to go out into the pure light of the sun, where, in time they have been able to look the sun in the face and to understood it as it is, in all of its power, beauty, truth and goodness. They are filled with unspeakable joy and, quite naturally, wish to stay in the warm, bright presence of the sun, forever. But they are commissioned to go back down into the dark cave they had only recently escaped, to try and help others escape the chains of their ignorance. Those who are commissioned to do so are counseled, though, to take their time, to let their eyes readjust to the darkness, and to let their ears become attuned again to the language that is common to those in the cave. Those who live in the darkness of ignorance have not yet experienced the truth, therefore, they do not know its vocabulary, or the language of it. Those who are commissioned to bring the light to those still living in the cave, need to learn again how to speak in the manner of those living there, so that they can help them come to the truth through their own ways of speech. If, on the other hand, they go down into the cave speaking excitedly in the language of the real truth, goodness, and beauty that they have come to know, too quickly, without knowing how to speak it to those living in the darkness, they will be speaking in ways that may be ʺover the headsʺ of their listeners, and their listeners will not understand. Indeed, they may think of them and their message as crazy, maybe even dangerous, and they will not listen. We have to learn how to speak to others in terms that they will be able to understand. Pentecost tells us one thing for certain, that God wants all peoples, both near and far, to hear the message of salvation.
In our prayers, then, let us ask God to send his Spirit upon us so that we, too, can preach the gospel to those we find ourselves among every day. There will always be those who will be able to learn foreign languages better than others. If they are called to the missions in foreign lands, that will be one of their great God-given gifts. But the majority of us must preach to those around us. We must listen to them, to their hopes, their dreams, their doubts and their fears and give them the peace and promise of God in language that they will readily understand. Let us ask God for the skill to be able to do this, both with our ears and with our tongues. Let us pray with all of our hearts, ʺCome, Holy Spirit! Light our minds along with our souls. Give us the gift of tongues that will be appropriate for our present situation, just as you did for the Apostles on the day of Pentecost.ʺ Amen.SKM: below-content placeholder