Words on the Word


Acts 2:1-11: Each was bewildered to hear these men speak their own language.
Romans 8:8-17: The Spirit of God has made his home in you.
John 14:15-16, 23-26: The Holy Spirit will remind you of all I have said.

The first recorded instance of public preaching in the Catholic Church was thought by onlookers to be a display of drunkenness. It is a point worth thinking about. What marks the behaviour of somebody drunk? When do we say about someone, ‘He must be drunk’? Let’s be wary of imposing our own cultural assumptions. In our cities and towns, we see a lot of public drunkenness. It isn’t nice: young men shouting abuse; over-made-up teenage girls holding on to each other so as not to fall over; rowdiness and shouting. This isn’t the sort of drunkenness the biblical author has in mind. For one thing, it is a type of behaviour one doesn’t really see, to this day, in the Mediterranean world: it is a northern phenomenon. Also, in the Acts account, no mention is made of unruliness or incoherent rants. On the contrary, the Apostles speak with perfect clarity, not only in their own language, but in any number of others. What made them seem drunk was not social licence but enthusiasm. People who have had one too many do tend to hold forth. What is more, they say things as they are. In my country there’s a saying, ‘Do you want to hear the truth? Ask a child or a drunk man.’ Either will talk straight. The Apostles, then, have lost their inhibitions. This makes them stand out. A few days earlier they’d huddled behind closed doors for fear. Then at once, they erupt into Jerusalem, speaking freely to strangers come ‘from every nation under heaven’. They’re under the influence of something!

The first Pentecost is principally about speech. The Spirit, bestowed in tongues of fire, sets the Apostles’ tongues moving. They are filled with an urge to narrate the mighty works of God, not just among themselves. They must out, into the streets. They wish no one to be left in the dark about Christ. They’re eager to make of all they meet a brother, a friend, a member of the ecclesia. Today, when religion is increasingly removed from public view, privatised as a function of personal preference, this founding event of Church history offers us a lesson and a challenge. Do you, do I, feel the need to share with others the blessing and joy of believing? Are we on fire with the Gospel, burning to proclaim by our words, our lives, the victory of Jesus? If not, if our faith is mainly for, about, ourselves, have we perhaps got a crucial further step to take in order to reach Christian maturity?

Proclaiming their message, the Apostles speak in various tongues. The notion of speaking in tongues has, for us, a special meaning. We think of it as words uttered by inspired individuals, sounding like gobbledygook to other people, except to the one raised up to interpret. Such glossolalia is not confined to the religious sphere. We find it wherever emotions run high, even at football matches. The Apostles’ Pentecostal preaching was of a different order. It was made in established dialects, intelligible to pilgrims from afar. The Apostles had acquired the languages of others. Anyone who has pursued fluency in a foreign language knows that to speak orderly is quite a proposition. The Spirit, Paul will one day remind his friends in Corinth, is not a Spirit of disorder. This is clear from its first manifestation. What matters in the Pentecost account is not, though, any spectacular show of linguistic ability. What matters is that God’s word becomes accessible to those who have not heard it, for it to illumine and renew hearts and minds. The list of Jews and God-fearers who, at Pentecost, heard the Gospel proclaimed in their own tongues is poignant. Geographically, they represent modern-day Syria, Iraq, Iran, East North-Africa and Turkey. Judaism has long since been rooted out of these lands, its adherents expelled or massacred. Today it is the turn of Christians. Who’d have thought that, in the 21st century, we should see fellow believers crucified in Mesopotamia? This last day of Eastertide calls to mind where our faith was first lived and proclaimed. Our hearts bleed for brothers and sisters in Christ driven away from this Christian heartland, and for believers persecuted elsewhere. Let us strengthen our resolve do what we can to assist them. Pentecost proclaims that we are one. May this never be just a pious phrase.

We’ve seen how the Apostles preached without inhibition yet were able to address each passer-by in words he or she could understand. In a transferred sense this touches our witness today. The notions of faith are now so far removed from the minds of our contemporaries that, trying to give an account of our faith, we might as well be talking Aramaic. Let us ask the Spirit to inspire us with words and gestures that make sense to those around us, speaking compellingly of God’s gift in Christ. In our Pentecost Gospel, spiritual gifts are linked to observance of the commandments. This is a message everyone can grasp. We shall be bearers of the Spirit, witnesses to Christ, if we live as Christ taught us, if we are merciful, forgiving, tender-hearted, standing firm in the truth, prepared to bear each other’s burdens while carrying our own load. May God give us grace to be faithful to his commission. In the words of the final prayer of this Mass, may the gift of the Holy Spirit ‘retain all its force’ in us, filling us with its sober intoxication. Amen.