Holy Spirit sanctifies Languages and Inspires Daily Life
Published in the Post and Courier, Charleston, SC, May 2007
By Fr. John Parker
“What does it fulfill?” This was the question I was asked by an Orthodox priest when I had called him to find out what the Church has always taught about Pentecost, the 50th day after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon those gathered in that upper room in Jerusalem, the ‘birthday’ of the church.
I was familiar with the western Christian tradition of wearing red on Pentecost, a liturgical reminder of the tongues of fire which lighted upon the heads of the disciples; though I learned that green is the liturgical color of the Christian East, a sign of Life. I was accustomed to birthday cakes for the Church and missions fairs—since it was from the day of Pentecost that the Apostles went out from Jerusalem proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, repentance and forgiveness of sins, with boldness and without fear.
But Fr. John Abdallah’s question stumped me. I knew ‘of course’ the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, since it is included in Luke’s account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles. “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…” Fr. John charged me to think harder about it. “What does Pentecost reverse?” “Reverse?” I reflected, “What on earth are you talking about?”
Then He told me, and it was as if all the lights went on in my darkened stadium. If the Holy Scriptures are indeed one full story of creation, fall, and redemption, here is one beautiful demonstration of this truth!
Generations ago, “the whole earth had but one language and few words” (Genesis 11:1ff). And in those days, man decided to build for himself “a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for [himself]”. This prideful act was gazed upon by God himself, and judged to be only the beginning of the selfish pride of humanity. So, God confused their tongue and scattered the people across the face of the earth, so that they could not understand one another. The building they attempted to build is well known as the Tower of Babel. Pentecost is the divine reversal, the healing of this unholy effort. This is what Fr. John was trying to teach me.
If Babel was the scattering of languages, Pentecost is the gathering and sanctifying of them. If Babel was communal death by language, Pentecost is salvation through language. If Babel was the division of the world into language groups, and ultimately giving people what they wanted (a name for themselves—the development of nationalism), Pentecost is the crushing of nationalistic boundaries—the Gospel heard in all languages. If Babel was the sizeable expulsion of the world from near Eden, Pentecost is the gathering of the world at Jerusalem. Language, once a curse and separation, is now sanctified by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel in all the languages of the known world.
This sanctification of language is critically important, yet most of us take it for granted. Are we not accustomed to hearing the Gospel and praying in our native tongue? This is one significant gift with Pentecost. There is no longer any sacred language in-and-of itself. Not Hebrew, not Greek, not Latin, not Slavonic, not English. The Gospel is to be proclaimed and understood in the language of the people, whoever they may be. Any ‘theological’ defense of one particular language is nothing more than a continuation of the pride of Babel.
And what about the acquisition of the Holy Spirit? How does it happen? Having the Holy Spirit in my life is a daily event, yet many people mystify such an experience, and seek from the Holy Spirit lavish gifts: speaking in tongues, miracles, visions, dreams, etc, and even go away on retreat weekends to obtain them. Often missing in all of this is an understanding of what the saints teach about the routine existence of life: to know myself as I truly am is a greater miracle than raising the dead. Have I been granted this great miracle, realized by the Holy Spirit in worship, love, and forgiveness in light of the Resurrection? It is by the Holy Spirit that we are each convicted of sin and brought to holiness, a daily task even for the greatest living saint.
Ultimately, then, although we each have a personal Pentecost at our Baptism, when we receive the Holy Spirit as did our Lord at his, we are called to a daily Pentecost in the “routine drudgery of everyday existence in this fallen world.” For this reason, and beginning with today’s Holy Feast, Orthodox Christians bookend each day with an ancient prayer to the Holy Spirit. God grant us the same, and save us!
“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere present and fillest all things, treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One!”
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 843.881.5010.