by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
I WOULD BE acknowledging my inner nerd if I were to admit in print that I’m a big fan of the Mythbusters show on the Discovery Channel, but so be it!
Do plants have feelings? Is it dangerous to take a shower during a thunderstorm? Can somebody swim through syrup just as fast as they would through water? Is it OK to eat food that’s only been on the floor for less than five seconds? All of these questions and many more have been tackled by Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman and their intrepid crew.
I’d really love for them to take on just one more myth, but this one probably wouldn’t make it to prime time: Is it really harder for adults to learn another language than it is for children? At least from what I’ve been reading lately, this myth has already been busted – not with much drama but with patient and careful research by people who study second-language acquisition. It seems that adults actually learn second languages more easily than children and that the old story about young brains being “more flexible” is flat out wrong.
There are some seven thousand languages spoken around the world, and putting all of them on the to-do list would make for many lifetimes’ worth of learning. Anyone for Aymara? Balochi? Duala? Kyrgyz? Yakut? Wouldn’t everybody get along much better if the whole world spoke the same language? Not if you believe what you read in the Book of Genesis!
In chapter 11, when the Creator sees that “whole world had the same language and the same words,” it is no small concern that they are building a tower “with its top in the sky,” seeking to make a name for themselves. The Creator puts a quick halt to the towering arrogance of their do-it-yourself brick-and-bitumen glorification, deciding to “go down and there confuse their language, so that no one will understand the speech of another.”
Might it not be argued that Babel was actually a backhanded blessing, one that took a long time to take hold? The Book of Revelation tells of John’s vision of great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue, crying out: “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9-10). The psalmist shouts out, “How manifold are your works, O Lord! The earth is full of your creatures!”
Hear the words of the old hymn, “O that I had a thousand voices, and with a thousand tongues could tell of Him in whom the earth rejoices, who all things wisely does and well!” The more languages, the more ways in which earth’s many voices have words to praise the greatness-beyond-all-telling of the One who made us all!
In this Sunday’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we learn that it was the Spirit of God who transformed the babble of Babel into a blessing for all peoples. The very same Creator Spirit who brought order to the swirling chaos of the primeval deep at the beginning of time brings understanding to “Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, travelers from Rome, Cretans and Arabs.” Unlettered Galileans – fisherfolk like Peter and James and John, and tax collectors like Matthew – were doing the talking, but the Spirit of God was at work in them to make known the mighty acts of God in all the many languages of the multitudes gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost.
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, themselves residents of a city renowned for its ethnic diversity, that “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’” in any language, “except by the Holy Spirit.” It is through the workings of the same Spirit, he goes on to teach them, that “there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”
The Spirit to whose activity the New Testament gives witness in Jerusalem and Corinth is still busy in Brooklyn and Queens. From Flatbush to Flushing, on Broadway and in Breezy Point, in Korean and Kreyol Ayisyen, in Spanish and Cebuano, in Italian and in Igbo (to name but a few of our many tongues), God’s many and mighty deeds are proclaimed by Spirit-filled people, as the miracle of Pentecost echoes again and again.
Come, Holy Spirit, and teach us one and all to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” in all of the many languages with which you have blessed us![hr]
Readings for the Solemnity of Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-11
Psalm 104: 1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34
1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13 or Romans 8: 8-17
John 20: 19-23 or John 14: 15-16, 23b-26[hr]
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is professor of theology at St. John’s University.