In the Old Testament, God promised that in the last days, in the days of the Messiah, he would pour out his spirit on all of his people. The apostle Peter quotes this promise to explain what is happening when the apostles speak in tongues at Pentecost. This outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost marks the beginning of the period promised so long ago.
But why would God want to mark this great new beginning, the fulfillment of the Messianic promise, the start of the Church, by having the apostles speak in all the myriad languages of the polyglot world of their time? There are so many other things the Spirit might have done! Later, filled with the Spirit, the apostles heal the lame, cure the sick, cast out demons. Why didn’t God mark the beginning of the outpouring of his Spirit by something more glorious than the ability to communicate with others without a translator?
Here we should remember the story of the Tower of Babel not so long after the Fall, told early in Genesis (Gn 11:1-9). The people building the Tower of Babel all spoke one language. But they used the power that the commonality of language gave them for evil: to build a tower that reached to heaven. God defeated them by the simple expedient of multiplying their languages and leaving them unable to understand each other.
Now, in the new age, Christ offers all people salvation from their sin, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In this age of the Spirit-filled church, all human beings are invited into communion with the Lord and with each other. Human beings can be trusted with unity when they are incorporated into the one body of the Lord.
And maybe that is why God marks the beginning of the reign of his Spirit in the Church by overturning the Babel of human language. Human beings filled with the Holy Spirit can be given again what they lost at the Tower of Babel, not for storming heaven, but for proclaiming the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C). This art may be reproduced only by parishes who purchase the collection in book or CD-ROM form. For more information go http://www.ltp.org