A new language

Published on 05 Jun 2019
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For Pentecost Sunday, Peter Gallagher SJ reflects on the power of language and how the Holy Spirit assists our communications.

Learning a new language is laborious for most of us. In a world in which people move around a great deal and have to function well in cultures strange to them, there is plenty of such labour. Acquiring competence in a language may be no mere decorative accomplishment but necessary for survival.

The account in the Acts of the Apostles of the first Christian Pentecost makes light of learning new languages. Expression and comprehension come very easily to the linguists of the upper room. By a miracle of the Holy Spirit, the apostles who had gathered there were able to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that could be understood by everyone who heard them whatever whatever their native language. The apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech. Those attentive persons in Jerusalem who listened to what they said reported that we hear the apostles speaking in our own language about the marvels of God. 

The spiritual teaching that continues to this day

The language schools would be out of business if it were always as easy as at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit seems to abolish the slow toil of acquiring facility in languages. Essential to the foundation of the Church is the power to speak and understand the new language of the Spirit. That foundation is made in the first place on Christ himself. The community of all the disciples of Jesus holds together through a clarity of understanding achieved by the Holy Spirit. We, as friends of Jesus, speak and comprehend as his Spirit teaches us to do. That spiritual teaching continues to this day. Pentecost makes it all seem easy. The gentle lessons of God are still being enjoyed by eager students. All through our life of faith we go on acquiring and practising the language of the Spirit with the help of the same magnanimous pedagogy.

Those who heard the apostles speak so clearly in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost found themselves transformed. The newly-qualified teachers had been praying continually in the upper room for a long time. Today, the homework of all who are growing confident in the new language of the Spirit is also prayer. What we are to share with others we first come to possess ourselves.

The new language of the Spirit

It is the grace of God which draws us and others to listen to the good news. The Holy Spirit broods over this communication. He confers both attentiveness and clarity. Apostles are always talking gratefully about what God has done and about his continuing powerful help. The new language of the Spirit enables effective communication about a divine providence which is watching over the life of all of us. With his gift of speech and understanding we can speak to others of blessings and sufferings.

Good and evil are not topics on which we converse merely for the sake of demonstrating fluency. The new language of the Holy Spirit opens the doors of our heart. Indeed even when those doors are shut, the Spirit enters and teaches the grammar and the syntax of joyful faith.  Pentecost renews itself. Quite suddenly we are understanding something of great importance which we never grasped before. We practice these difficult constructions: understanding them, using them, speaking eloquently with them and living the life they express charitably and faithfully.

Holy exchange

The Church begins at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit evokes in each of us that new openness, interest and attention which allow us to hear what the apostles are teaching us. The apostles are inspired to teach and we are inspired to listen. There is in all of us a steady gratitude for what God has done. We are moved to give thanks for what God has achieved for us in the life and death and resurrection of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Renewed at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit, we want to tell others about what has happened to us. The routine of ordinary life in the Spirit is not dull but it calls out of us perseverance and persistence as well as the ecstasy of discovery. The language we are acquiring expresses appreciation. We give thanks. We share our sense of gratitude with others.

With a certain fluency, with a certain ease and with a certain persuasiveness we find we are speaking a new language. We are speaking in the Holy Spirit. It seems, delightfully, as if those who hear us are not surprised. The Spirit is at work in all. His truth can be expressed and can be accepted. The new language makes sense to those who speak it and to those who hear it. It warms the heart. The dialogue which it enables is a holy exchange and sharing of the Word of God.

Peter Gallagher SJ