Sunday, May 15, 2016

Speaking in Tongues

Today is Pentecost. For Christians it commemorates the occasion when after the ascension the Spirit descended to the apostles in the form of twin flames of fire, allowing them to ‘speak in tongues’. Amazed, they realised that they could speak all the languages of the lands to which they would journey to bring the message of their new faith.

The miracle lies in the fact that the varied languages which the apostles could suddenly speak were all recognisable to the native speakers of those lands – the text mentions Parthians, Cretans, Arabians and others. This episode is related in the Acts of the Apostles, towards the end of scripture. It is near the beginning, in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Genesis, that we read of another episode about many tongues: the story of the tower of Babel, familiar even to those who have not read the story in scripture. 

In the story of Babel, all of humankind can speak one language. There is no difficulty with communication, and even strangers from far lands can readily understand one another. With a co-operative will they construct a tower so tall that it begins to reach beyond the clouds into heaven itself. This human presumption is thwarted by divine will, which at a stroke causes the many languages of the world. Communication breaks down, the tower is left unfinished, and the builders scatter to their different lands.

One story seems to mirror the other. In the Babel story, communication breaks down. In the story of Pentecost, the barrier to communication is miraculously overcome. Both stories are concerned specifically with the language barrier: one story causes it, and the other story overcomes it. My own Netherlands native tongue is spoken by a comparative minority in Europe, and at school it was standard practice for us to learn three other major European languages – French, German and English. Being multi-lingual in this region of the world can at times be a necessity, but the language barrier can be overcome, not with miracles, but with simple work and study.

In the end, it’s all about being able to communicate effectively with each other, wherever we come from. And communication does not always rely upon language. A sense of communication can come from sharing a piece of music, for surely music is a universal language beyond any limitations of speech. And sharing emotions which bring joy or simple pleasure make any language barrier meaningless. Such sharing of emotion needs no Pentecostal fire, no speaking in tongues, no miracle. It relies only upon what we feel in our hearts, and the language of the heart is universal.

Art by Iris Sullivan

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