A few years back I was getting chemotherapy at a government hospital in Pretoria. One day an old lady was there for her treatment the same day I was. She asked me a question – something about procedure – but because she had such a heavy Scottish accent I had trouble immediately understanding what she was asking, even though she was speaking English. When I’d run it through my noggin’ and answered her, I could tell it took her a few seconds to process my (Afrikaner) accent in turn, even though I too was speaking English.
I was reminded of this incident when I went through the readings for Pentecost day. In Acts 2 the disciples witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – as a “tongue” of flame that rested on each of them – and they were able to declare God to many different people in their own languages and dialects. The sarcastic comments that they were drunk probably indicates that this wasn’t a staid affair: the disciples were ecstatic and emboldened, as we see in Peter’s subsequent speech. The crowd was astounded.
Beholden to our faith traditions or upbringing, I think we sometimes forget that the Holy Spirit is multilingual. We become used to hearing the cadence of the Holy Spirit’s voice in certain ways, certain places, certain music and rituals. There’s nothing wrong with this: we each have a “faith” mother tongue, a language we understand and speak well, one that expresses us best. But ours isn’t the only language the Holy Spirit speaks, teaches, guides and leads us with, and ours isn’t more or less legitimate than, say, French is to Finnish.
At her heart, the Holy Spirit is an interpreter. She interprets the heart of God for us and interprets our hearts back to God. In John 7 Jesus told his disciples that they had not yet received the Spirit because he had yet to be glorified (crucified). If Jesus had been the heavenly-to-earth dictionary, allowing us to make sense of God, then the Holy Spirit is a Babel fish*.
As an interpreter, however, the Holy Spirit isn’t just limited to heavenly/human conversations. The Holy Spirit is an active participant in human-to-human dialogues as well. In a faith marked by vast differences in practices and adherents, and in a world noisy with different spiritual “speech”, the Holy Spirit helps us to speak each other’s language. Like the Scottish lady and I, it might take us a moment, but if we are committed to hearing and to being heard, the Holy Spirit will “do the talking.”