From the Book of Acts:
“How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 2:8-11 – August 3, 2012)
These are the words spoken by the great crowd of Jews and others who thronged the streets of Jerusalem for the Festival of Shavu’ot when the Twelve, empowered by the Holy Spirit, begin to tell the story of Jesus in languages they had never before spoken. Shavu’ot is a celebration with both agricultural and historical significance in Judaism. It is known as the “festival of the first fruits,” a harvest feast when the first fruits were brought as offerings to the Temple; it is also known as the “festival of the giving of the Law,” a celebration of the handing down of Torah on Mt. Sinai. It was called Pentecost, a Greek word meaning “fiftieth”, because it always falls on the fiftieth day after the Passover. That year it fell on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection and, thus, the Christian feast of the Holy Spirit carries that name, as well.
Twenty centuries later, the Jews still celebrate Shavu’ot and Christians still celebrate Pentecost, but what a different world we inhabit. Can we still find meaning in the notion of offering the first fruits to God? Does the giving the Law still have significance? And what of all those languages and the Apostles’ unprecedented immediate linguistic skill?
For us North American Christians an agricultural feast seems a distant and remote idyllic pastoral fantasy. We are no longer connected to the land. Our culture has moved away from an agrarian basis, through the industrial revolution, even beyond a manufacturing basis; we now live in what is being called a “service economy”. We no longer generally produce anything tangible! What are the “first fruits” of non-productive labor in a service economy? It just boils down to money, I guess.
And what about the myth (a word I use with no disrespect intended and with no suggestion that the story’s point is untrue) of God giving the stone tablets to Moses? In a time when that Law has been largely set aside by Christians and even many Jews – in a time when most people have separated the secular civil laws of everyday life from religious observance and custom – in a time when we conceive of the law as something made (“like sausage”) by a group of bickering, nasty, polarized, do-nothing elected officials – in such a time, how are we to give thanks for “the law”? Do we even want to?
Which leaves me to ponder that gift of languages? There are still plenty of them and there are more, in a sense, than ever before; even as actual, spoken tongues die out for lack of use, new means of communication arise – emoticons and email abbreviations have birthed tweets and hashtags – Facebook and LinkedIn and their ilk are the new “crowded streets” – night-time Twitter conversations are held by church people discussing ways “social media” can be used to spread the Gospel – tongues of flame seem to dance on computer monitors and laptops, on tablets and smartphones.
How is it we hear? How is it we understand? How is it we grasp the ancient truths of receiving the Law, the offering the first fruits, experiencing God’s deed of power? I’ve no doubt that hearing and understanding and comprehension are going on . . . but I often wonder if the church (the institution, not the people) is playing any part in that process of communication and comprehension. I hope and pray the Holy Spirit will alight upon us all and give us the gifts we need to do so, so that all may hear and understand in whatever “language” they best comprehend.
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.