Words on the Word


Acts 2:1-11: Each one bewildered to hear his own language.
1 Corinthians 12:3-13: All baptised in one Spirit. 
John 20:19-23: Peace be with you.

We tend to say that Pentecost is the Church’s birthday. Why, actually? Couldn’t we just as well say that the Church came into being when Christ instituted the Last Supper, or called the disciples, or even when he took flesh in the Virgin’s womb? These perspectives are not invalid; still, the focus on Pentecost is justified.

As long as the Lord is corporeally present, the Church subsists as ecclesia, an assembly responding to a call. Christ works for the Church. He walks with the Church. Yet it is only after the Ascension, when the Paraclete comes, that the Church appears in her specificity and discovers her identity. She remains an assembly of believers, naturally. But she is first and foremost the mystical Body of Christ. At Pentecost, we might say, the Church awakens to the reality of herself as subject. Christians discover that they are not just part of a devout humanitarian project, but incorporated into a sacramental, transformative Presence.

This Presence manifests itself in the form of an astonishing unity. We have heard Paul expound the phenomenon to the Corinthians: ‘The body, though made up of many parts, is one.’ Humanly speaking, the Church is full of human gifts. The Church is a mixed-voice choir. What shows Christ present in her is the miracle that all these voices are tuned to symphony.

There is a variety of gifts, but one Spirit; all sorts of service, but one Lord; different manifestations of power, but one good purpose. Unity is, in the Church, a criterion of authenticity. When the Church is truly herself, a single sublime Keynote resounds through all her different voices. Jan van Ruusbroec liked to speak of Christ as the Church’s Cantor. We can, I think, go further and say that he is the Keynote. He, the Word by whom all things were made, is the unifying principle of the universe. Likewise he is, at the level of the Church, the foundation of all harmony. To be a Christian is to grow towards perfect pitch.  

Do I listen out for the keynote? Do I hear it? Do I sing in tune with it?

You may think I’m expressing myself in terms that are too mystical and nebulous. Let us then consider the matter in purely practical terms. What is the first thing that happens when the Spirit comes upon the Apostles as fire? They are enabled to communicate comprehensibly. Suddenly they can speak other tongues. The Apostles can address people from every country, each in his own language. A new possibility of understanding among people arises on the basis of the Gospel of resurrection, of the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Thus a wound is healed that that was struck at the beginning of history as the Bible tells it.

At first, we read in Genesis, the earth had ‘one language and the same words’ (11.1). People conferred in order to develop a joint project. They sought to build a splendid city with a tower reaching into heaven. Mankind imagined it could, under its own steam, bring heaven down upon earth. It considered its ideas revolutionary, itself boundless, its vision as absolute. God seemed quite superfluous. Man found in his own notions the measure of what was, and wasn’t, possible. He suppressed the thought of himself as a contingent creature.

The project of Babel is an image of our yearning to divinise ourselves. The Lord saw where it would lead. Therefore he confounded human language and made men incomprehensible to one another. The babble that ensued was part of an economy of mercy seeking to protect us from our own presumption.

Through thousands of years misunderstanding formed the basis of communication among peoples. Until Pentecost. When the Spirit flamed forth upon the earth, something wonderful happened. Once again, the Keynote could be heard. The eternal Logos who gives meaning and form to all that exists found voice in the Spirit through the Church. If we are receptive to the Spirit, we are led back to a paradisal state, when human beings could understand one another, help one another, and look one another in the eyes without fear or shame. Life in the Spirit is not primarily about ecstatic phenomena but about reconciliation in view of unity. In as far as the Spirit of Jesus is alive in us, the Church will credibly realise its call to be ‘a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race’ (Lumen Gentium, 9).

The experience of Pentecost had practical consequences. The first Christians were not content merely to saunter polyglotally around the market places of Jerusalem. The embodied their aspirations in shared prayer and in the breaking of bread. Above all, they ‘had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need’ (Acts 2.44f.).

This example remains the golden standard to which the Church returns each time she seeks to renew herself with a degree of seriousness. 

To speak about communion is easy and pleasant. To live out communion, to deliver oneself to it, is very demanding. To live as a member of Christ’s Body is to breathe the Spirit of Jesus, who emptied himself unto death, giving his life for his friends. We talk a lot about synodality these days. It is an excellent term, but we need to understand it correctly. The Tower of Babel was preeminently a synodal undertaking, though self-destructive, which is why the Lord undermined it. To be on the road together is a fine thing, but what really matters is where one is bound and whose lead one follows. Anyone who claims to be a bearer of the Spirit, and thus to abide in Christ, ‘must walk just as he walked’ (1 John 2.6). Else he or she is a fraud.

Any new melody must harmonise with the Keynote that is from everlasting, otherwise it is but a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal  (1 Corinthians 13.1). Today the Lord gives us his Spirit by which he would renew the face of the earth.

May we, then, be renewed as human beings and become true Christians, messengers of Christ’s hope to the world. And may our devout, noble undertaking find credible expression in our lives. Amen.


Detail from Bruegel’s painting of the Tower of Babel, now in the Museum Boijmans