Wednesday, June 3, 2009

5-31-2009: Pentecost (B)

Genesis 11:1-9/Psalm 104/Romans 8:22-27/John 7:37-39
The famed Tower of Babel from Genesis – the thing, if you will, which Pentecost corrects – is the source of the myth of language devolution, of global incomprehension, of contention and enmity born of misinterpretation. It’s also the source of our word babble which, in the case of the babbling fool, connotes the nonsensical and ridiculous. A better contemporary example of babbling might be the current penchant for cable news 24/7, bringing us the latest -- ad nauseum: the result being we are less informed than ever precisely because there is too much information. E-mailing and texting, rather than fostering better communication, only seem to aggravate misinterpretation: the text, paradoxically, lacks the texture necessary for reading it rightly – the spoken word being a quite different creature than its written equivalent.

How did those foreigners listening to St. Peter preach on that first Pentecost understand him though they didn’t speak his language? Was there some kind of universal translator present (like on a Star Trek episode) or were his words perceived as a sort of interior locution? Was Peter able, despite his lack of education, to offer simultaneous translations of his Aramaic sermon in Greek and Latin and Farsi like his modern successors, or was his meaning conveyed simply by tone of voice and fluidity of gesture?

If anything, the miracle of Peter’s speech reminds us that words require texture for us to understand their deeper meaning. A baby’s babble might not be understood in a literal sense but can convey, by the texture of the sound, feelings of either contentment or frustration which every good parent learns to translate with fluency. A babbling brook, far from an annoyance, instills in the listener a sense of harmony rather than discord, peace and not contention.
The Bible, God’s revealed Word, his written-down words, is ultimately only second-best. That’s why, at Mass, someone reads the words aloud – so we might hear a spoken voice. In the ancient world people didn’t read silently to themselves but aloud even when alone. The heart of Christianity is the belief that the Word became flesh. God spoke the Word; he didn’t inscribe the Word. That’s not to say that the written word is not important or essential – it is. It preserves what was once spoken. It safeguards, for posterity, the living and sometimes even babbling words which God speaks and wishes us to hear.

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