Here in Detroit, the gorgeous weather we’ve had this weekend is starting to gear up for the thunderstorms that are predicted over the next four days. But luckily, I’m not talking about weather.
I’m talking about the feast the Western Church observes today. In my own Episcopal church, we dress up the church (and sometimes ourselves) in festal red, the color of fire; we listen to Scripture read in multiple languages; we sing, “Hail Thee, Festival Day!” A beautiful liturgy for a beautiful day—the “birthday of the Church,” Pentecost.
The name “Pentecost” derives from the Greek for “fiftieth,” and was originally applied to the Jewish festival Shavuot in the Greek-speaking diaspora in the Roman Empire. Shavuot, which falls 50 days after Passover, commemorates God’s gracious gift of Torah at Sinai, and the people’s reception of it. Shavuot also celebrates the first fruits of each year’s early harvest. The Christian festival picks up these same themes, but with the different inflections of a different language.
St. Luke mapped the Christian onto the Jewish feast, in the second movement of his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. Because Jesus died and rose again around Passover—a deeply meaningful connection made by all four canonical Gospel accounts—it certainly makes sense to link the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with the giving of the Torah. Hints of the parallel may be found in today’s Gospel, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 (follow the link for the text):
‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. [NRSV]
The Spirit will be to the Church what Torah has been to Israel: a teacher and guide; a way for humans to deepen their understanding of the divine; a means to be in relationship with God. (That, of course, is not an exhaustive list.) Placing the Christian celebration of God’s outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost should not efface God’s gift of Torah to Israel or fuel the unhelpful (and often destructive) “spirit v. law” dichotomy. Rather, it links together the two great events, showing them to be two harmonious movements of God’s love song for the world.
But there’s another element to Pentecost: the “gift of tongues.” St. Luke describes it in Acts 2:1-11:
When the day of Pentecost had come, [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [NRSV]
It is often remarked that this scene represents a reversal of Babel—the story in Genesis where God “confused the language of all the earth.” It is a strange story. According to the text, everyone in the world spoke one language. They decided to build a city, the highlight of which would be a tower reaching all the way to heaven. The reasons given in the text are “to make a name for ourselves,” and to prevent humankind from being scattered throughout the world. So God comes down to earth to check it out. Apparently, God is impressed, but not in a good way. In fact, it sounds as if God feels threatened by what humans had achieved, and worries about what else they might do. So God decides to break them up by causing them, rather suddenly, it seems, to all speak different languages so that they cannot understand each other. It worked: people found the others who spoke their language, and these language groups each went their own way, simply abandoning the work they had begun together.
The story leaves us with some strange impressions: for example, that human unity is a bad thing; or that God feels threatened by human achievements. Certainly there is an element of hubris in what the humans in the story have proposed to do, but there is nothing inherently evil in building a city or a tower.
What struck me today, hearing these texts in church, was the vastly different visions of unity in each story.
In the first story, human unity is grounded in homogeneity. “Look,” God observes, “they are one people, and they all have one language…” They proposed to build one city with one tower, in an attempt to preserve this kind of unity. It is a unity that has to be enforced, lest it disintegrate naturally. The city, had it been completed, probably would have been full of sameness, micro-managed by homeowners’ associations and building codes and fashion police. God’s presence, then, was a dangerous and threatening one. God seemingly just wanted to thwart the construction project—and to destroy mutual understanding among humans. That doesn’t sound like any God worthy of the Name, does it?
Maybe, though, if we read this story through the lens of Acts, we might see that God has a different vision of unity.
One ancient definition of beauty, in fact, is unity-in-diversity: different parts making up a harmonious whole, like the movements of a symphony. What if in “confusing” human languages and dispersing people through the earth, God was creating diversity, in order to unite humanity again more beautifully?
The unity we see in Acts involves disparate peoples together in one place, understanding each other through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Unity, in other words, is not something humans can engineer, no matter what building projects we undertake. Unity finds its source in the one God. What does that unity look like? Christianity affirms that the one God is three Persons. God is inherently relational (“God is love”). So beauty finds its source in God: the Holy Trinity is unity-in-diversity, is beautiful. This beautiful, loving, relational unity is God’s gift to us humans. It is a major concern of the Torah, and it is Christ’s own prayer for the Church.
Continuing his story in Acts, St. Luke tells us that Peter, prompted by the Holy Spirit, preached to the (highly diverse) crowd, and three thousand of them believed in Christ and were baptized. Not only that, but “day by day the Lord added to their number.” These were the “first fruits,” we might say, of Christ’s Passover. St. Luke describes this nascent but growing community thus:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. [NRSV]
As with Shavuot, we have a multi-faceted commemoration: God gives, we receive. God’s gift bears fruit, and we feast with “glad and generous hearts.” God’s gifts create covenanted communities, in which we are united with God and with each other.
The gifts we receive from God are for the life of the world, as both Jews and Christians can agree. So the movement builds, weaving familiar motifs into increasingly complex and beautiful music. Or, if you prefer the gastronomic metaphor, each successive harvest adds new flavors, colors, textures, and complexities to the feast. At any rate, it is a unity-in-diversity which, when scattered throughout the world, produces a harvest of beauty.
There’s a famous quote from Darwin that I think applies here:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [Source: On the Origin of Species, last line in the text.]