Babel unbabbled

It was a very spiritual atmosphere as the little group of pilgrims celebrated Communion together in the Shepherd’s Cave near Bethlehem. All was done in a very Anglican style: calm and peaceful. At least it was until the charismatic Catholics from South Korea began their Eucharist nearby, complete with amplified rock band, dramatized re-enactment of the Nativity and dancing girls. Had I been able to understand it, it would have been great fun.

Different cultures worship in different ways, but the gospel translates into every dialect and style. Christians do not have to read the Bible in one official language, we can hear the good news in our own tongue.

That is part of the message of Pentecost. The diverse crowd in Jerusalem that day did not have to learn Aramaic before they could respond to the message. Instead the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, addressed the crowd in their own native languages. Ever since, missionaries have laboured to understand local cultures and Bible translators have dedicated their lives to producing versions which people can read in their mother tongue, making the good news of Jesus intelligible to all. It is a momentum we must continue today, as we explain Christ to an ever changing culture. We in the church need to make the effort to ensure the message can be heard and understood.

For God cherishes human diversity. It is often said that Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel, that the many languages and mutual incomprehension, which were a judgement on human pride, are now undone. This is not quite correct. Pentecost is not a reversal of Babel, but a transformation and healing.

Pentecost does not set things back to how they were before the Babel story, to an original single language. Rather, using the different languages, the Holy Spirit expresses the one message in ways which all can understand. The story of Babel is taken up, healed and made whole, not simply reversed.

We see this in the Book of Revelation, which ends, not with a return to the Garden of Eden, but with a vision of new Jerusalem. We see that the Risen Christ bears the scars of the cross. In other words the story of human history with all its brokenness is not simply wiped away, but it is instead made whole, transfigured, so that through it can shine the glory of God.

Christopher Bryan