Posted: June 2nd, 2014

The Languages of Pentecost

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
If the medium is the message, what's the point of Pentecost's polyglossia?

In ancient times, Jews from around the Mediterranean world would travel to Jerusalem to be present for one of the three great Jewish feasts.  Just as nowadays, a Greek-American might plan a trip to Greece in order to be there for Holy Week or for the Dormition or for his nameday. 


And so it was, fifty days after Passover, the city where the disciples where told to stay was filled with tourists and travelers from all parts of the Roman Empire.  And this Feast of Pentecost was the chosen time when the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon the disciples and apostles under the form of wind and fire, and filled with the Spirit, they would be able to proclaim the message of the Messiah, Crucified, Resurrected, and Ascended on high to be seated at the right hand of the Father. 


And so it was found that as they spoke, everyone could understand their words: whether the hearer was from the north, south, east, or west; whether from Persia or Mesopotamia, North Africa or Asia Minor, from Rome or Arabia or Crete.  They all heard the Apostles’ speech in their native language and were amazed.


But my question, as a student of languages, is: Why wasn’t Greek good enough?  Why would it be necessary to have all these languages spoken all at once?  Greek would have been good enough, if the point was getting those people in Jerusalem at that time to understand the Apostles’ message.  Greek was the universal language then.  Anyone who traveled would have known some basic Greek, and especially among the Jews of the Diaspora, who read the Bible not in Hebrew, but in the Greek of the Septuagint. Greek was the language for universal communication.  Greek would have been enough to get the job done at Pentecost, if the point were simply that all those there that day should understand the Gospel.


Or you could try the Pontius Pilate solution: three languages—Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.  Between those three, everyone standing in Jerusalem that morning could have gotten the idea of what was being said.


Instead, what you have is one Apostle speaking Persian, and the next one speaking Berber and a third one speaking the Celtic dialect of Galatia.  It would have been an acoustic mess.  No wonder the people thought the Apostles were drunk.


Good old Greek would have been enough that day … if the idea was simply having everyone understand who was present there.  But that was not the only idea.  If the medium is the message, and if the medium is the language of all the people out there everywhere, then the message is clear:


This Gospel is for everyone who is anywhere in the world. The message of Jesus Christ is a message for all.  And we don’t wait for them to find it.  We bring it to them.  That’s what the Apostles took away from Pentecost, and that’s what began their worldwide missions: Andrew to Asia Minor, Bartholomew to Armenia, Thomas to India, and so on. 


This message is not just for us who enter our church building Sunday after Sunday.  It is for the whole city around us.  And the purpose of this parish is to bring the others in, to convey the message to them, so that they would understand and be saved.


What does Pentecost mean to us?  Pentecost means that this beautiful, wonderful community we call our parish does not exist for our benefit alone.  It exists for a wider mission. 


We call the main part of the church the nave.  Nave comes from the Latin word for ship.  The Church is a ship, symbolically speaking.  But what kind of ship are we?  Or are we a cruise ship, floating along for our own amusement, enjoying the food and taking part in whatever activity we feel like, when we feel like it?  Are we a rescue transport, ready to go anywhere and brave any storm in order to save those in danger of perishing? 


The Feast of Pentecost is a blessing and a challenge.  The blessing is in knowing that the Gospel is for us too, who do not speak Hebrew of ancient Jerusalem.  We have received the word of truth in Greek or in English, and we have the Holy Spirit and Pentecost to thank for this.  But it is a challenge as well.  A challenge to not be content with serving ourselves, but to view this parish, this community, this life we share together at Holy Trinity as a gift, a gift to be shared with as many of our neighbors as possible—those who are like us and those who are different from us in every way. 


May the Lord pour forth His Spirit upon us in power now to fulfill His will to call all people to Himself through us, to the glory of God and for the salvation of His people! 


A Blessed Pentecost to all!  Chronia Polla for the Nameday of our parish!

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