Pentecost. From the Greek, meaning “fiftieth.” Originally and still a Jewish harvest festival fifty days after Passover. In Christian lore, the fiftieth day following Easter celebrating the coming of Holy Spirit upon the first disciples.
On this day, two biblical stories about language.
From Genesis, a primeval etiological legend, a tale that seeks to explain origins, in this case, of the dawn of ethnic and territorial diversity. In a time of linguistic uniformity, everyone speaking the same language, people driven by a hubristic hunger for glory, build a city with a tower reaching to heaven. God, apparently myopic, “came down” to see more clearly. Jealously regarding the building project as an infringement on heavenly real estate, God (clearly a NIMBY, not in MY backyard?), with a celestial snap of the fingers, creates many languages, making communication, cooperation, and continued construction impossible, for the people, without a common bond and soon to be scattered abroad, no longer understand what is said.
In Acts, Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, before ascending into heaven, instructs his disciples to remain in Jerusalem to await the fulfillment of his promise to empower them to proclaim his gospel. Suddenly, a mighty wind shakes the house and the fire of the Holy Spirit alights on each of them; compelling them, presumably all Aramaic-speakers, to proclaim in many languages the word of God. The listeners, Pentecost pilgrims, a cosmopolitan conglomeration of races and nations gathering in Jerusalem, thus, a reversal of the Tower of Babel story, are “amazed and astonished”, for all understand what is said.
The cynical folk in the crowd consider the proclamations of the disciples the confused mutterings of ordinary inebriation; hardly the supernatural utterances of extraordinary inspiration. Understandable, for I believe what is said and what is meant are related, though never the same; the former involving the declaration of words, the latter, their interpretation. Thus, Peter has to disclose the meaning. Silencing the scoffers, he tells them what they have witnessed is not public drunkenness, but rather the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy of God’s Spirit poured out on all flesh. Not, as in olden days, only on the chosen few, whether Moses or the elders of Israel, prophets or kings, but on sons and daughters, young and old, men and women, free and slaves. All will see visions. All will dream dreams. All will prophesy, able to say, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Focusing again on language, this word “all” signifies what Pentecost means to me. God pours out the Spirit, God’s nature, God’s Self upon all, overriding all barriers we humans erect against one another, ignoring all prejudices by which we discriminate and divide, for that is how God, who created all of us, sees all of us and, thus, wants, wills all of us to see one another and, thus, to see this life in this world differently…
This life in this world where we humans, in countless literal and metaphorical ways, have built, do and will build towers upward to heaven, the taller the better, to glorify ourselves is also where we, inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, saying, “Thus saith the Lord,” seek to build bridges of connection outward to all our sisters and brothers…
This life in this world where we humans cling to our boundaries and barriers inherited from generations past and our lines of demarcation, whether we draw them ourselves or in our silence allow them to be drawn, between those who are included and excluded is also where we, inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, seek to make the dream of love and justice a reality for all.
Over ten years ago, I had a vision that became incarnate in my sabbatical during which I purposefully went out into the world to engage “the other” – those unlike me, an African American Episcopalian and liberal Christian – Europeans and Africans, Jews, Muslims, and conservative Christians, secular humanists, agnostics and atheists. Through that experience, I was inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, no longer able to focus only, even largely on the differences of our humanity, but rather to behold the commonality of our spirituality, for we all are created by God. This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions or beliefs about how things should be. It does mean I am slower to judge others and I refuse to condemn others, for only God knows what is in the heart and soul of another person, who truly, as I, is equally God’s creation. It does mean that ever since, inspired, intoxicated by the Spirit, I consciously have offered myself to God to be used to share with my lips and my life the gospel of love and justice with all.
I close with the words of Nikos Kazantzakis in his semi-autobiographical work, Report to Greco, for me, one of the most beautifully descriptive spiritual journeys in literature: There are three kinds of souls, three kinds of prayers. One, I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Draw me, lest I rot. Two, I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Do not overdraw me, lest I break. Three, I am a bow in your hands, Lord. Overdraw me, I care not that I break.
For most of my life, I prayed the first two prayers. For the past ten years, I have prayed and, for the rest of my life, I will pray the third.
Tower of Babel by an unknown Flemish painter, 1587, Kurpfalziches Museum, Heidelberg
Pentecost (1596), Doménikos Theotokópoulos (El Greco) (1541-1614), Museo del Prado, Madrid
 Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks)
 Acts 1.4-5, 8
 See Joel 2.28-29
 See Numbers 11.16-17
 For example, see 2 Kings 2.9, 15 and Isaiah 61.1f, concerning Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah, respectively.
 For example, see 1 Samuel 10. 1 (Saul) and 1 Samuel 16.10-13 (David)
 Report to Greco (Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1965), page 16.