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Sunday, May 19, 2013

What language do you act?

Well, today I unfortunately forgot my recorder, so you're going to get the written summary from memory of my sermon.

Today is Pentecost, the day upon which we are told in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:1-21) that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples and worshipers present at the event of Pentecost.  As a result of this, those present, who were from a number of different areas and spoke a number of different languages, were miraculously able to understand one another.

We often take for granted our ability to communicate verbally.  Most of us are unaware of how many people we speak to or hear speaking in a day.  Imagine being stripped of your ability to communicate either verbally or through the written word.  Imagine being unable to understand or to make yourself understood.

The events of Pentecost make me think of an experience I had while doing a hospital internship during seminary.  I was called to emergency where I was briefed on a situation: an elderly couple had been walking down the street when the husband suddenly collapsed.  Despite the efforts of the staff, he had died shortly after arriving at the hospital.  I was called to comfort the disconsolate wife, but there was a problem: she was Italian and did not speak a word of English.

I do not speak a single word of Italian.  This was before my ordination, and so although I was functioning in a pastoral capacity, I did not have a collar, which would otherwise have been a convenient way to identify myself to her.

By chance, I happened to have a rosary in my pocket for some reason, and I showed that to her, and she seemed to understand.  Even if she did not understand who or what I was, I was nonetheless able to sit with her, hold her hand and be a presence to her.  That was all I could do, but it was clear that she appreciated my presence.

There are other ways to communicate than language.  Anyone who has has traveled to a foreign country or been accosted by a tourist in our own country where languages differ has perhaps felt the frustration of not being able to communicate.  You have maybe also felt the thrill of pleasure that comes from breaking through that barrier through gestures or another method of communication.

On its surface, the Pentecost miracle is about language.  It makes me think that behind the story of the Pentecost miracle lies a deeper meaning, a meaning that you and I can tap into.  I have often said that one of the problems with the Biblical miracles is that if we focus on the miraculous, we may find it hard to relate to because most of us cannot perform miracles (and if you can, let me know, we can take that act on the road).

On a deeper level, I think the Pentecost miracle is not so much about language, but about communication.  As my previous reflections explain, language and communication are not always the same thing.

As the maxim goes, "Actions speak louder than words".  Compassion, peace, justice, love, mercy, tolerance: all are ways of communicating with one another which transcend language, race, religion, creed and colour.

Unfortunately, hard-heartedness, war, injustice, hatred, vindictiveness and intolerance are also ways in which we can communicate with one another.  These actions speak just as loudly as their positive counterparts.

What language will you speak?

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