Reversing Babel

Imagine the food court at a shopping mall.  It could be the Galleria here in Houston.  People are munching on their Chick-Fil-A and Sbarro pizza.  Hordes of shoppers pass by, averting their gazes from making accidental eye contact with anyone else.  Others sit, drone-like, abiding in the crowded anonymity.  There is plenty of noise, but it is senseless babble.  It would be difficult to find a more disconnected group of people.  In fact, the only thing binding them together is the shared exchange of money for commodities.  Their only relationship is utilitarian.  There is no shared joy, no empathy, no spirit between them.

There is a piano in the corner, on which a fellow is paid to play muzak, bland and milquetoast.  The background music contributes to the general disconnection of the environment.  It could be any music, and it barely registers to the ears of those around.

But then, almost imperceptively at first, the pianist plucks out a few notes of something different.  A lone diner puts down her burrito, stands on her chair, and unexpectedly begins to sing the first line of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.”  She draws irritated stares from those around her.  She must be drunk on new wine or crazy, they think. Those nearest her begin to move away, as if she is the repellent pole of a magnet.  But then a man across the food court picks up her message.  He stands and responds to her with the “Hallelujah Chorus’” second line.

People rubberneck to get a glimpse of this new voice, afraid for a moment in our violent and disconnected culture about what may be happening.  But before they can fully turn around—before they can comprehend—five, ten, twenty more people are on their feet, singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in parts at the top of their lungs, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord; and of His Christ, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever; forever and ever, forever and ever!”

Suddenly, the zombie-like shoppers are awakened.  The Sbarro-eating diners are full of something other than pizza.  They hear with new ears.  Where before faces avoided one another, now they seek each other out, making contact stranger with stranger, sharing smiles, finding resonance with something deep in the soul that had been forgotten.

“King of kings and Lord of lords,” the impromptu choir sings, “and He shall reign forever and ever, forever and ever!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!”

As quickly as it began, the flash mob ends.  The singers melt into the crowd, or return to their lunch.  The spectators are stunned, but their daze is the exact opposite of their earlier stupor.  Something has happened to them, something important.  They don’t fully understand it.  With smiles on their faces, they begin to talk to neighbors who were strangers only moments earlier.  One puts a hand on the arm of the other.  Even as they leave the food court and return to their shopping, the conversations continue.  Where before there was only babble, now each understands the language of each, languages that run deeper than words.

__________________

Today is Pentecost.  It’s a weird day.  Strange things happen.  It’s a day with which our Pentecostal brothers and sisters are very comfortable, but which we Episcopalians find discomfiting.  I once had an Easter-and-Christmas Episcopalian who attended her granddaughter’s baptism on Pentecost afterwards write me an angry letter, saying, “How dare you make all that noise in church!”

The Tower of Babel: Crowding out the God who had created them in love.

The Tower of Babel: Crowding out the God who had created them in love.

Indeed.  The apostles receive a similar response from some on the first Christian Pentecost.  When the Holy Spirit arrives and the noise begins, we are told, some in the crowd sneer and say of the apostles, “They are filled with wine.”  On the one hand, this confirms what I’ve always suspected: The apostles were Episcopalians.  On the other hand, it underscores that Pentecost has been confusing since the very beginning.

In order fully to understand Pentecost, we have to travel much further back in history than the time of Jesus.  We must travel, in fact, to pre-recorded history, to a time just after Noah’s Great Flood, a time (we are told in Genesis) when all the people of the earth spoke the same language.  People were connected, and communicated with one another, but in their affinity for each other they forgot—or willfully ignored—the God who created them in love.  At a place called Babel, they decided to build a tower that would reach to the heavens and block out God, in order to demonstrate their own self-sufficiency.  So God knocked them from their tower and bewitched their tongues.  (This story is where the very word “babble,” meaning incoherent noise, comes from.)  God gave them different languages, so they could no longer understand one another, and God scattered them across the earth.  Thus began the human predicament, still true on every level from nation states, to relations between various cultures and religions, to the food court at the shopping mall.  Because we are detached from the God who made us in love, we are detached from one another.  Because we lack an inherent ability to connect, to understand—which is both a lack of language and a lack of empathy—we take the path of least resistance.  We keep our heads down.  We avert our eyes.  We seek anonymity, even in crowded places.  We pursue what we need for our own ends and get out as quick as we can.  Heck, we do all these things even in the church!

But on that day of the first Christian Pentecost, something different happens.  The tape reverses.  Babel unwinds.  It turns out it was never God’s intention that human beings lack the ability to understand, to empathize with, one another.  It was God’s intention that understanding center on God’s own Spirit of love, the very Spirit those who built the Tower of Babel sought to crowd out.

PentecostAnd so today, on Pentecost, God sends that Spirit to the disciples.  Because Jesus has ascended to heaven without them, the disciples are confused and worried.  They don’t know how they’ll find the strength or the words to carry on, to communicate the Gospel of love to the scattered and babbling world around them.  But when the Holy Spirit enters the room and enters the disciples, they find that they are intimately connected to God, and they can speak in languages other than their own.  Their Gospel words become universal.  And to the crowd—at least to those who honestly desire to hear—the disciples’ message resonates in their ears.  They understand it, and it leads them to seek understanding among one another.  They no longer pass each other by, babbling to themselves.  They engage one another.  They share in God and the wonder of God.  They are changed, on that day and forever.

Liturgical Pentecost observances often focus on different languages: English, Spanish, German, Greek, Mandarin, and so on.  Indeed, our own rendering of Acts this morning did just that.  But in reality, I believe, the biblical text’s focus on languages—on different vocabularies and grammatical structures—is primarily metaphorical.  The message of this account is that, when we truly are infused with the Spirit of God’s love, our separation from God and the separation of the human condition are repaired.  That Spirit flows in us and between us, from one to the other, overcoming differences in language, culture, politics, and religion; lifting our faces to make eye contact; perhaps even bridging the chasms between us in the pews.

“When we truly are infused with the Spirit of God’s love, that Spirit flows in us and between us, overcoming differences in language, culture, politics, and religion.”

Like a crowd of zombie-like shoppers at the mall who are awakened from their stupor by a flash mob’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” the arrival of God’s Spirit opens our ears and our eyes.  It quickens us to see that same Spirit in the smile of the person next to us, to whom we were blind just moments before.

When the Holy Spirit arrives, as Handel wrote, “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord; and of His Christ, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever!”

It is a universal message, binding us together that we might walk through this world noisily proclaiming the God of love to all who have ears to hear.

***

Note: At the Cathedral this morning, in place of the offertory anthem, the Parish and Cathedral choirs staged a flash mob of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”  It was awesome.

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