May 23, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary
Acts 2:1-21 or Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Acts 2:1-11
Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34 (see 30)
Galatians 5:16-25
John 15:26-27; 16:12-15

Fans of Star Trek and other science fiction shows may be familiar with the universal translator—a system that allows characters from different worlds to communicate with one another instantaneously. As the crew of the Enterprise made their way through far-off galaxies exploring new frontiers, they were enabled to interact with those they met by this very helpful device. Never mind that the lips of all the characters moved in sync to the English words—but of course, Star Trek is fiction.

Language can be a source of unity among people and help to strengthen cultural identity. Consider how fiercely people often fight to maintain their native language when forced to adopt the language of an occupier or colonizer, or how important it is for many communities of immigrants to preserve and pass on the language of their home countries.

Because language can create an obstacle to communication, the art of translation often plays an important role in bridging divisions, By observing and listening to my husband speak about his work as a professional translator and interpreter, I have come to admire the way in which he and his colleagues seek to overcome division and help people seek mutual understanding.

Yet even translation can go amiss. A famous example occurred in 2009 when newly installed U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the Russian foreign minister with a large red button that said “reset” in English but was mistranslated to say “overload” in Russian. What had been intended as a friendly gesture instead caused puzzlement and led to a deeper rift in a relationship already fraught with bad feeling.

On this Day of Pentecost, we celebrate the Spirit of the risen Christ that overcomes division among people. As the breath of the Holy Spirit filled their entire house and came to rest on them, the disciples were empowered to speak boldly. Although their hearers were from various places and spoke different languages, each one heard the witness of the disciples in their own language.

The Spirit brings about unity by accommodating diversity rather than obliterating it. From that first day that the infant church began to proclaim the good news of Jesus, the Christian community has constantly been challenged and empowered to reach beyond its own limitations to speak in new ways and to widen its reach by including those who had previously been on the periphery. Differences among people—language, culture, gender, and other distinctions—are no obstacle to the unity created by the Spirit of the risen One. Rather, those differences make it possible to fulfill the mission of the risen Christ to give witness to the ends of the earth.

A careful reading of the story reveals that the Holy Spirit not only enabled the good news of Jesus to be heard in many tongues but empowered the disciples to speak in other languages. Christians today sometimes marvel at the power that was unleashed in the upper room on that Pentecost. Yet the Spirit of the risen One continues to fall upon the church today. We are called to testify to the truth that we have received through the Spirit, affirming people in the beauty of their diversity and bringing them together to live in justice and harmony. That’s something that the universal translator could never do.

A Hymn for Today: “O Spirit All-Embracing”

Delores Dufner, OSB, FHS, has woven together images of the Holy Spirit from Scripture and Christian tradition to fashion a hymn in the English language for the church today. This text expresses the richness of the Spirit’s power in the world and the impact of the Spirit on the community of believers.

O Spirit all-embracing and counselor all wise,
Unbounded splendor gracing a shoreless sea of skies:
Unfailing in your treasure, unfading your reward;
Surpassing worldly pleasure, the riches you afford.
Come, stream of endless flowing, and rescue us from death;
Come, wind of springtime blowing, and warm us by your breath.

O Beauty ever blazing in flower, field, and face,
You show yourself amazing in unexpected place.
We see you and remember what once our dreams had been;
You fan the glowing ember and kindle hope within.
Come, fire of glory gracious, bless all who trust in you;
Undying flame tenacious, burn in your Church anew.

Compassion’s power holy, your insight here impart,
And give your servants lowly an understanding heart
To know your care more clearly when faith and love are tried,
To seek you more sincerely when false ideals have died:
For vision we implore you, for wisdom’s pure delight;
In prayer we come before you to wait upon your light.

Text: Delores Dufner, OSB, b. 1939, © 1995, 2003, GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.

Image Credit: Globe of Language, Wikimedia Commons

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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