The feast of Pentecost was not originally a Christian feast, but rather a Jewish one marking 50 days since Passover and the first-fruits of the wheat harvest. Yet, in the fullness of time, Christians came to remember the Lord’s sending of the Spirit on that day, and so it is sometimes referred to as the “birthday” of the church (though other sources, like Saint John Chrysostom, identify the piercing of Christ’s side as the moment in which the church formally came to exist).
On the Vigil of Pentecost, the Old Testament reading is of Babel, the mythical tale of humanity’s hubris and the aetiology of the myriad of languages — and resulting confusion — existing throughout the world. Anyone who has ever fumblingly studied foreign languages can aim his or her frustration at those arrogant ancient citizens clamoring, “Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower (or a wall?) with its top in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the earth.”
But in its wisdom, the church points out through the connection of the readings that the havoc wrought by human selfishness can be rectified by the always-greater power of God. For on Pentecost, the “reversal” of Babel takes place. Instead of humanity remaining confounded by the din of voices seeking to talk over one another in pride, the Spirit’s arrival as tongues (lingua) of fire at Pentecost enables each to hear the Word of God proclaimed in his or her native vernacular.
Language is then closely associated with Pentecost. Scholars since Wittgenstein and Heidegger have been quick to point out that thoughts do not occur in some “chemically pure” form and then subsequently come to be articulated in language. Rather, language forms and makes possible conscious thought. “Language is not just an instrument by which we express what we already know, but is the very medium in which knowledge occurs. Language is the voice of Being, and [humanity], in whom language takes its rise, is the loudspeaker for the silent tolling of Being…It permits Being to show itself” (Avery Dulles, “Hermeneutical Theology”).
Christians of various types, especially charismatics and Pentecostals, believe the Spirit can endow them with a gift regarding “speaking in tongues,” or glossolalia. The second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is often cited as evidence that this mysterious and effusive verbal outpouring is an authentic fruit of the Spirit. Catholics have historically been cautiously open toward this phenomenon, though it is, to be sure, not a very usual occurrence in suburban parishes on Sundays. While the charismatic wing of the church has fostered a greater willingness to explore the genuine spiritual riches of this reality, and the pope himself has prayerfully engaged in groups where it is practiced, Catholic teaching makes clear that it is not necessary for salvation, somehow evidence of greater holiness than in those who do not experience it, or an integral part of formalized liturgical prayer life for most believers.
Images of fire and wind and breath remind us that the Spirit “blows where it will.” Sometimes this is in entirely unexpected places. Popes John XXIII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all employed language of a “new Pentecost” when describing the Second Vatican Council. The spiritual common ground being sought both within the Catholic Church and across denominational boundaries reminded the participants (which all three popes were in various capacities) of that day when the Spirit enables the Apostles to proclaim anew what they had witnessed, experienced, touched with their hands and accepted in their hearts: the Author of Life, the Rock of Ages, the All-Consuming Fire, the Alpha and the Omega. The victorious Word of God spoken finally, definitively, and irrevocably to human hearers.
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University Chicago.