Sunday, May 31, is Pentecost Sunday. Mass readings: Acts 2:1-11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-31, 34; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23.
When I was in the third or fourth grade, our teacher invited a guest speaker to address our class on the subject of the Middle East since we were learning about the region in social studies. He had been a diplomat for a number of years and had learned Arabic quite well, which he demonstrated by writing some of our names in Arabic script. I remember being mesmerized by this and thinking that it was nothing short of a miracle that a person could learn a completely different language — especially one that was written with a completely different alphabet, as this man had done.
The nature of linguistic communication between human beings is featured prominently in the readings for this great feast of Pentecost.
In the first reading, the disciples find themselves gathered together in one place, presumably referring to Jerusalem, where Christ told them to await the sending of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4). After experiencing the rushing of wind and the descent of tongues of fire, which are two prominent symbols of divine presence in the Old Testament, the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit and are miraculously given the ability to communicate in various languages for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel.
The scope and variety of these languages is clear from the words of the travelers who are looking on, and this underscores just how wondrous this miraculous sign was.
They refer to themselves as coming from far-off places that include the furthest extremes of the known world, east (e.g., Parthia, Elam) and west (e.g., Rome, Libya), north (Phrygia, Cappadocia) and south (e.g., Egypt, Libya). Further, some of their number include mysterious travelers who were continually on the move as sailors and nomads (e.g., Cretans and Arabs). All of these exceedingly different people were present to witness the miraculous occurrence of the Holy Spirit of God empowering the disciples to speak their languages. Above all, this demonstrates God’s providential guidance of human affairs; God had arranged for all of these diverse people to be in one place in order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel by providing many witnesses of his solicitous love and power.
In short, even before the disciples went out to preach to all nations, God brought all of the nations to listen to the disciples.
As remarkable as these miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit are, it is important also to recognize the vital role he plays on a daily basis in the lives of all believers. Paul points this out in the second reading, when he writes that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Although subsequent generations of believers might desire to witness divine miracles similar to the Pentecost event, Paul makes clear that they experience the full power of the Spirit every single time one of them confesses Jesus as Lord.
In addition to this, Jesus Christ, by conferring the power of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, enabled them and their successors to do something with language that is most remarkable of all: Forgive sins.
In a way, Christ’s gift of the Holy Spirit deputizes the apostles to act on behalf of God by dispensing his mercy through the sacrament of penance, a reality that continues to be a source of blessing for the Church. A priest’s ability to absolve sins is, in fact, another way that believers continue to experience the power of the Holy Spirit at work on a daily basis, and this is more powerful than any display of miraculous linguistic ability.
is an instructor in sacred
Scripture at the
Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.