Acts 2:1-11, John 20:19-23 (Pentecost, year B)
And they were all filled with the Holy Spiritand began to speak in different tongues,as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,but they were confusedbecause each one heard them speaking in his own language.
Whenever I hear this passage, taken from the account of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, I always think of the science fiction story, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. In this novel, the diverse inhabitants of the galaxy are able to communicate with one another thanks to a universal translator called a “babel fish”, which allows the user to understand and speak any language imaginable. The disciples’ ability to speak different languages is one of the most striking details of Pentecost. It is as though the disciples each received a complimentary “babel fish” along with the the gift of the Holy Spirit! Their newfound linguistic prowess had an obvious practical advantages: it aided them in their mission to preach the Gospel to all nations. In addition to its practical utility, the gift of tongues has a deeper meaning which reveals the significance of Pentecost in the history of salvation.
A primary consequence of sin is division among people. In fact, the English word “sin” comes from the German word for sin, “Sünde”. From this, we also derive the word “sunder”, which means to tear apart or separate. Origen, one of the Church Fathers, explained simply, “where there is division, there is sin”. Disunity among people is marked by a breakdown of communication. The ancient story of the Tower of Babel powerfully illustrates this (Gen. 11:4-9). After the great flood, all humanity was unified in speaking a single language. Their unity was demonstrated by their ability to communicate freely. This all changed when the people decided to build a tower that reached into heaven. In doing this, the people sinned because they tried to put themselves - quite literally - on the same level as God. Because of this sin, the unity of the people was broken. Their languages became confused and they could no longer communicate. In our own lives we experience that sin brings about division. When someone hurts us, we pull back from communion with them. We no longer want to communicate with them as before. Sin causes division.
A primary consequence of the Holy Spirit is unity among people. The Holy Spirit is the perfect bond of love between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. Therefore, wherever the Holy Spirit is there is communion. Unity is achieved when there is affective communication. Some years ago I did some mission work in Tijuana, Mexico. When I first moved there I spoke no Spanish. Because I was unable to communicate with the people I was supposed to serving, I felt cut off from them. My inability to speak their language language meant that I couldn’t enter their world. I tried to be friendly and smile a lot but I could not get to the know the people and they could not get to know me. When my Spanish became good enough to have a proper conversation, everything changed. It was a wonderful experience. Walls were torn down. There was a greater trust and the people opened up to me. I got to know what they were thinking, what was important to them, what gave them hope and what they feared. I learned about their culture in a way that would never have been possible if I had not learned the language. Our ability to communicate brought about unity. Since communion is achieved through communication, it is understandable that one of the first gifts given to the disciples at Pentecost is the gift of tongues, the ability to make themselves understood. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit overcame the division caused by sin at the Tower of Babel. Humanity was once again able to communicate freely. Unity in any group, whether it be our family or parish community, is a sure sign the Holy Spirit is present.
We live Pentecost in our own lives when we become agents of unity. When we reach out to others and communicate with them, bringing them into communion, we are carrying out the work of the Holy Spirit. Pope Francis does this in a very simple, practical way: he often picks up the phone and calls people in order to enter into closer union with them. When Pope Francis receives a letter from someone who is sick and asking for prayers he often phones them. Recently he called Franco Rabuffi, a sick Italian man, and greeted him with a simple, “Hello, I’m Pope Francis”. Franco hung up on him, thinking it was a prank call. Pope Francis tried again. Again, Franco hung up on the Vicar of Christ. Finally on the third attempt Pope Francis was able to get through to Franco and they talked. Imagine how much closer Franco must have felt to the Pope after their conversation. Communication brings about unity. Pope Francis has phoned the most unexpected people hoping to break down divisions. Some time ago, Pope Francis called up Eugenio Scalfari, a prominent atheist and newspaper editor at his office. Scalfari described the “the telephone call I will never forget as long as live” in this way.
It was half past two in the afternoon. My phone rings and in a somewhat shaky voice my secretary tells me: "I have the Pope on the line. I'll put him through immediately." I was still stunned when I heard the voice of His Holiness on the other end of a the line saying, "Hello, this is Pope Francis." "Hello Your Holiness", I say and then, "I am shocked I did not expect you to call me." "Why so surprised? You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I'm calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary: I can't do Wednesday, nor Monday, would Tuesday suit you?" I answer, that's fine. "The time is a little awkward, three in the afternoon, is that okay? Otherwise it'll have to be another day." Your Holiness, the time is fine. "So we agree: Tuesday 24 at 3 o'clock.”
And so they met and talked - an atheist and a Pope who is convinced that unless we seek to bring about unity we are not doing the work of the Holy Spirit.
Sin leads to division. The Holy Spirit, who we have received at Baptism and Confirmation, overcomes separation and builds unity. Communication leads to communion. Let us follow the example of Pope Francis. Sometime soon, pick up the telephone and call somebody who you think you need to be closer to. Phone a sick friend or someone you have been been in an argument with recently or an elderly family member you have lost touch with. In this simple, practical way, we can live Pentecost here and now.