One of the most striking features of the day of Pentecost, in the Scriptural account, is the emphasis on diversity. The mission to the Gentiles is a major theme in Luke’s writings (which includes Acts) and thus Pentecost has great importance for him. The disciples gathered in an upper room as they had so many times before in the preceding weeks. But now the promise they had been given was fulfilled – the Comforter came. But in His coming, the Holy Spirit made Himself manifest in a very diverse manner – in particular – through the diversity of languages. On that first day of Pentecost the gospel was proclaimed in all the languages of the pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem. And 3,000 souls were added to the Church.
But there is a larger point than the mere spread of the gospel. There is within the story of Pentecost, the reversal of an older story – the original story of the splintering of human language at the Tower of Babel. It is a parallel that is mentioned by the Fathers and in the hymnography of the feast. So, although the gospel begins to be shared in many languages – the purpose is to unite the many languages into one gospel. There is nothing in Scripture that makes us think that the unity God would have for us would be a unity brought about by a single language. If so, the miracle would have been backwards – everyone would have understood Aramaic. This is the unity of man – a unity that would force itself on us all – an extrinsic unity.
Instead – there is the gift of a new unity – not one that pretends that Babel never happened – any more than any act of our salvation pretends we were never sinners. The risen Christ bears the marks of His crucifixion. The coming of the End does not abolish the beginning.
And so, although God’s revealed purpose is that He might gather together into one all things in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10), it is nevertheless a purpose which is accomplished without abolishing what has come before. Indeed, even though the confusion of tongues at Babel is treated as something of a tragedy, it is, nonetheless an action of God for the salvation of humanity. That diversity of language saves us from a false unity that would have destroyed us.
Orthodoxy has traditionally preserved this diversity, despite times in its history when a language or culture (such as Hellenism) were in the ascendency. St. John Chrysostom, while Archbishop of Constantinople, was careful to see that there was a Church in Constantinople where the liturgy was celebrated in the language of the Goths (an important component in the Byzantine Empire). And so it was that Sts. Cyril and Methodius sought to preach the gospel to the Slavs in the language of the Slavs. And St. Innocent and others brought the gospel to America in the language of the Aleuts and others.
The unity that the Holy Spirit gives us in Christ is a unity of doctrine, a unity of mind, a oneness in the knowledge of God. That unity is never diminished by the diversity in which it is expressed – but rather magnified. There are aspects of the gospel that are better understood in Greek than in English, better said in Slavonic than in Aleut, and so forth. Just as finally, the fullness of Christ will only be made known in the fullness of His body.
This has nothing to do, per se, with modern fashions of diversity or with various humanistic visions of multiculturalism. Such programs can be as oppressive as any we have known. In the Holy Spirit, there is no oppression, no external compulsion, but liberty.
God, in the salvation of the human race, is putting things back together. But in doing so he cherishes all that we are and does not seek to destroy anything that is good. In Him we are transfigured, but never do we begin as one thing and become another. We do not start as men only to become angels.
This also has implications for those who come to the Orthodox faith from other places (cultures or religions). God does not destroy that which is good – He completes and fulfills it. I have heard the admonition of my Archbishop (DMITRI) any number of times to converts – reminding them not to speak evil or in an ungrateful manner of the places from which they have come. Who we are is, to some extent, formed and shaped wherever we are. I am an Othodox Christian, but there is much I know and see that I would not know or see had I not made the journey from the directions where I had wandered.
It is also true (and I frequently say this to those who have come to the Church) that in Orthodoxy is our true home. In that I mean no triumphalism – but a simple recognition that this is the faith from which all of us stem. My ancestry, as British (Celt, English, Irish, etc.) as is possible, is, when considered in its depths – Orthodox. Yesterday was the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury – who was sent as a missionary to England, by an Orthodox pope.
God is putting things back together – our lives – His whole creation. Strangely, that healing will also reveal us in our uniqueness as well. But, of course, we speaking of something only God can do. And it is wonderful in our eyes.