In former times men, seized by madness, wanted to build a tower to reach heaven; but the Lord, by dividing their tongues, divided their evil purpose. So now the Holy Spirit descends upon them in fiery tongues to unify a divided world. The result is something new and strange. (St. John Chrysostom)Some years ago (well before seminary!) I was asked in an interview why I had been drawn to opera as a career. One of the things I singled out was language. I love words. I love the sounds of different languages. I love it that every language has unique nuances, cultural influences - its own character, its grammar and syntax. I love it that some things just cannot be translated. I love the flavors of languages - they are all distinct in your mouth or on your tongue, just like different foods.
I love it that when I work with singers we get to work with great music - and with great poetry.
And I know that there is much that cannot be said, that cannot be contained in language.
St. Ephrem of Edessa spoke of God being "clothed in language" - the Word made flesh. And yet, certainly God cannot be contained by words. We may speak OF God - but can never finish describing God in language. The word "mystic" is derived from the Greek muein, to close the mouth, or keep silent - not in order to keep a privileged secret - but because some things simply cannot be expressed in words. The intimate encounter with the living God is beyond the power of language.
As St. John observes, words have the power to divide and to reconcile. Power to break down and to build up. Power to wound and to heal.
At Babel God exercised a creative power that stopped a community in their tracks, and sent them their separate ways.
On Pentecost the power of the Spirit flowed out in an abundance of language that drew people into the community we know today as the Church - capital C - the one that transcends polity, architecture, liturgies, membership rolls, collection plates, canons, confessions, catechisms, books of order, conventions, synods, curia, and whatever WE think Jesus would do.
May God light us afire with the passion to speak words of reconciliation, healing, and building up among all God's beloved children throughout the community of this world... whether or not they look like a church to us. "The result is something new and strange..."
Fr. Jay Rozendaal is a Priest Associate at St. Paul's, and a musician on staff with Seattle Opera and at Western Washington University