Yesterday was the Feast Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Disciples.
Most of us are familiar with the story, but I wanted to take a moment and look a little deeper. St. Luke gives us some details about the event that help show the significance of this day in light of the Old Testament.
After the Fall of Man, humanity became broken. Our relationship to God and our relationships with each other became stressed and strained by sin. You can see this particularly in the story of The Tower of Babel.
Most people think that the sin of the people of Babel was that they tried to reach Heaven by making their tower so tall. That isn’t quite the case. When the Bible tells us their motivations, it states: “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky,* and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.'” (Genesis 11:4)
So we can see that there are two reasons to build the tower. The first is that they want to make a name for themselves. This is a very common human desire. We want our name’s to be known, revered, and recognized. We honor people by naming buildings after them so that their memory does not fade from the Earth. We even seek more followers on social media so that we are known. In some ways, seeking to make your name great is a search for immortality in the world.
The problem is that only God can truly make your name great. Most people who have ever lived, even the very powerful ones, have eventually been forgotten. This world is not the place for your name to last. The saints will be the ones whose names will never fade from the Book of Life.
The second reason they wanted to build the tower was that they did not want to be scattered. This sounds like a very understandable reason, but this actually goes against God’s first command to humanity: “God blessed them and God said to them: Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). God gave us this whole world of creation. He wanted us to fill the Earth, not stay in one small corner of it.
So because of the people’s selfish motivations, God scattered them by confusing their language. Being able to speak a common language is one of the great unifying factors. You can even feel the distance between different generations of people who speak the same language when they use a different vernacular. When you were young, didn’t you get frustrated when the adults couldn’t understand you? And adults, are you frustrated when you can’t understand the slang of young people? And how often do our politics separate us to the point where it feels like those on the opposite end of the political spectrum are speaking a different language than we are? This lack of ability to communicate causes a separation. This is exactly what happens at Babel.
And throughout the Old Testament people turn away from the Living God. In fact, when Moses came down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments, he found the people worshipping the Golden Calf. All of the Levites joined Moses, who commanded them to slay the calf-worshippers. It says that a total of 3,000 men were killed that day for turning away from the Living God and thus embracing death.
This brings us back to Pentecost.
One of the great miracles that happened that day was what happened with Peter’s preaching. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter immediately began to preach to the people of Jerusalem. Pentecost was already a Jewish Holy Day. Because of this, Jewish people of different countries and different languages were present in Jerusalem with the Apostles. Peter preached, but “At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?'” (Acts of the Apostles 2:6-7)
Here, we see an undoing of the Babel event. Whereas at Babel, the people had their language confused and were scattered, here the language barrier was removed and they came together in unity. It says there in Acts, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day.” (Acts 2:41). Once again, we see the undoing of the sins of the Golden Calf. Whereas 3,000 men worshipped a false God and received death, at Pentecost 3,000 men turned to God and received everlasting life.