Pentecost, meaning “the fiftieth day,” is the ancient Greek name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, which celebrates the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Devout Jews came to Jerusalem to celebrate the holy festival; by the time of Christ, centuries after the Babylonian Exile and the Diaspora, they came from all over the known world and brought with them many different languages. On one long-ago Pentecost shortly after the death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit appeared to the followers of Jesus in tongues of fire, the disciples were inspired to preach the gospel of God’s love, and the people who heard them were astonished to hear the message in their own languages.
Theologians speculate about whether this was a miracle of speaking or a miracle of hearing. Did the disciples suddenly have the ability to preach in a myriad of languages? Or were the hearers suddenly able to understand a language they didn’t know, the ancient Aramaic of Galilee? No one knows.
There’s another interesting question that arises from this event described in the second chapter of Acts. How did we get from a miracle of understanding, in which people suddenly could hear and comprehend what had been unintelligible a moment before, to our modern notion of “speaking in tongues,” in which the words spoken are incomprehensible to anyone? Paul’s later injunctions to the faithful that speaking in tongues was of little significance unless there was a translator present seems to me to suggest that he was thinking about actual foreign languages. The equivalent would be an English-speaking person suddenly speaking in Chinese, or a speaker of Chinese suddenly able to understand English.
It seems to me that it’s most helpful to look at the miracle of Pentecost as metaphor, a symbolic teaching that tells us something about how God works in us. What happened in the account in Acts? The Holy Spirit appeared in tongues of flame above the disciples, the disciples were moved to proclaim the Gospel, and the people around them heard and understood (except, of course, for those who had obviously missed the miracle and thought the disciples were drunk and babbling).
Symbolically, the events of the story represent what happens to the person who becomes aware of the presence of God. When we are given the awareness of God’s presence in that manifestation of God whom we call the Holy Spirit, we can suddenly begin to comprehend things that we had never understood before. Our understanding blossoms in new directions, and mysteries begin to be opened to us. We can see others in a new light; we know more of who they are and we comprehend what they are saying, even things that were incomprehensible to us before. We are opened to the beauty of God in everything. Above all, we begin to sense the interconnectedness of all that exists, the great network of being that comes out from God to everything that is and that gathers everything that is into God. That is the miracle of Pentecost, a miracle we still experience today.