Pentecost, language, and difference
by Isaac S. Villegas
May 19, 2013
In 1492, in Salamanca, Spain, Antonio de Nebrija presented to Queen Isabella his latest book. Nebrija wrote the first textbook on the grammar of the Spanish language — a grammar of the vernacular, the ordinary language of the people, the everyday language spoken in markets and in fields, at home and on the streets. No other European country had a textbook for their common language. No textbook of German grammar. None for French or Dutch or English. There were plenty of textbooks on the important languages, like Latin and Greek. But, in those days, no one wrote textbooks on how to learn common languages. That would be absurd, a waste of time.
So, when Antonio de Nebrija presented his textbook on Spanish to Queen Isabella, the Queen was confused, puzzled. The bishop had to speak up and explain the significance of the book. The bishop said to the queen, “After your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes, among them will be our language.”
The bishop’s explanation made sense to the Queen. She had her mind set on conquest. Of course the Spaniards would need to impose their language on the barbarians in her conquered lands.
In Nebrija’s grammar book, in the preface, he emphasized the connection between language and colonialism. He wrote, “I have found one conclusion to be very true, that language always accompanies empire.” Language and empire. Colonialism involved imperial control through language, through a common vocabulary, a single tongue.[i]
At Pentecost we see a world of many tongues, the opposite of what Nebrija and the Queen imagined. At Pentecost we see how God affirms the native languages of all the peoples. “The crowd…was bewildered,” it says, “because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2:6). For God, there is no imperial tongue. Instead, at Pentecost we see God affirm a diversity of tongues. The Holy Spirit speaks through all languages. Every language is holy. There is none that is more holy than another. God speaks in a variety of tongues.
Pentecost invites us into a new way of engaging with difference, not just with different languages, but all ways we are marked as different from one another. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit speaks through the differences, without converting them into sameness. People aren’t invited to give up their languages, their cultures, and convert to the same way of speaking, the same way of thinking.
The miracle of Pentecost is that God speaks through all the native languages, not that God speaks in a single language, a universal language, that is translated into other dialects. At Pentecost, difference is made holy, through the Sprit. “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,” it says (2:17). All flesh. Not some, but all. Not in order to make everyone the same, but to affirm all flesh, to affirm where they came from, to bless who they are, to announce that what makes them different is good, is holy. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10:15). That’s what a voice from heaven tells Paul later in the book of Acts. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane”
The book of Acts is the story of Pentecost. Acts tell how Pentecost unfolds, how the event of Pentecost turns into a story — the story of how, for the followers of Jesus, the world changes at Pentecost, the story of how God invites the followers into a strange world, full of confusion and promise, an invitation into a world full of what they had learned to call unclean, deficient, profane, unfit for God’s holiness.
At Pentecost the Holy Spirit plunges them into a world of difference. The Spirit baptizes them into strange languages and peoples. Pentecost is a miracle of communication that will lead them, ultimately, into communion with gentiles, which they did not consider kosher at the time.
That’s where the storyline of Pentecost leads, to the gentiles — to what was considered an unlawful and offensive union between Jews and Gentiles, unnatural communion. Later in Acts, in chapter 10, Paul explains this strange movement of the Spirit to his Jewish friends. He says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).
“I shall not call anyone profane or unclean,” he says. Why? Because of what happened at Pentecost, where God says, “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.” All flesh is made holy, clean, good, even Gentile flesh.
We are still trying to understand what happened at Pentecost. We are still trying to understand how to speak in other tongues, not just our own, not just in the familiar. And we are still trying to understand the God who speaks with other tongues, the God who speaks through the mouths of others, the God who speaks in ways that are unfamiliar to us, that are strange — the voice of God that sounds so different that we find ourselves sometimes unable to understand, unable to recognize another’s voice as good news. We may find ourselves with the people on the streets of Jerusalem at Pentecost who are perplexed, who sneer and say to themselves, “They are filled with new wine” (2:13) — they are drunk, what they are saying is nonsense, irrational, absurd.
The history of the church is filled with stories of people who refuse to listen to strange tongues, Christians who refuse to learn from different forms of life, different ways of being. The story of Nebrija and the Queen of Spain is one such story. For them, the people in distant lands were barbarians, irrational, in need of a true language and civilized culture, in need of God’s law.
But Pentecost offers us a different way, where the Spirit affirms our differences, speaking in ways that each of us can understand, yet drawing us together, around the same table, into communion — that’s how the day of Pentecost ends, with all these strangers eating together. This is what it says about how the day ended: “So those who welcomed [the] message were baptized, [and] they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer” (2:41-42), “they broke bread from home to home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:46).
The miracle of communication that happened on Pentecost birthed a miracle of communion. To commune is to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and hope for a miracle, the miracle of knowing God — in the meal, in each other. Communion is an invitation to come together around the same table, and to let Jesus stretch us into relationships with one another, with people who are the same and different, as we struggle to understand God, as we struggle to understand each other.
The day of Pentecost ends with friends and strangers coming together as God’s people. That’s what we celebrate at the Lord’s Table — the God who calls us, all of us, to be baptized into the Spirit, to eat and drink together, for God has made us holy, members of one another.
“I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,” God says. Therefore, as we learn what Pentecost means for our lives, we say with Paul: “I shall not call anyone profane or unclean.”
[i] For an account of the story of Antonio de Nebrija and Queen Isabella, see Henry Kamen, Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492-1763 (Harper Collins, 2003), 3-4. Walter D. Mignolo gives a thorough account of Nebrija’s work; see Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonialization, 2nd edition (The University of Michigan Press, 2003), chapter 1: “Nebrija in the New World: Renaissance Philosophy of Language and the Spread of Western Literacy,” 29-67.