For me, “speaking in tongues” has always been the most fascinating part of the Pentecost story in Acts 2. In “possessing” the Apostles and speaking through them, the Holy Spirit becomes extraordinarily visible. Even this unusual manifestation is ambiguous, assessed equally in wonder and dismissal. (One of my favorite verses to quote out of context is Acts 2:13: “They have had too much new wine.”) Yet as far as extraordinary phenomena go, few things can top communicating in languages you’ve never learned.
I think we naturally think about “speaking in tongues” only as an extraordinary phenomenon, and unfortunately this abstract characterization loses something of what the story intends. The Apostles were not engaging in a definable practice known as “speaking in tongues”: rather, the Holy Spirit was being manifested through them in a particular context and with a particular message.
What we call “speaking in tongues” is an iconic representation of who the Holy Spirit is and what the Holy Spirit does. Concretely, Acts 2 reveals to us that the Holy Spirit acts as God’s interpreter, the One who helps us speak the language of God. The Pentecost story reveals this interpretive action of the Holy Spirit in three ways:
1. The Holy Spirit interprets the Father and the Son to us: In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Apostles rather cryptically: “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming” (John 16:13). In other words, the Holy Spirit will interpret God’s actions so that you will understand the ways of God.
Even to the end of Jesus’ time with them, the Apostles do not quite “get” Him. They ask Jesus before He ascends if He is going to restore Israel’s political fortunes (Acts 1:6). Yet after the Holy Spirit descends upon them, they understand who Jesus is and what He is about (i.e., the will of the Father). Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14-40) marks the first time that the Apostles understand what happened to them and Jesus in the traumatic experience of the cross and empty tomb.
2. The Holy Spirit interprets our relations with other people: Just as a common language unites diverse peoples, so too the Holy Spirit unites the human race and interprets our differences. One might easily forget the audience who hear the Apostles speaking in tongues. These are “devout Jews from every nation under heaven,” coming to celebrate one of the major pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5). Luke intends to show that God’s chosen people, scattered in two exiles, are being drawn together again in the Spirit. As many commentators have noted, this also reverses humanity’s fallen condition, characterized as the confusion of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). Where human languages and pride divide human beings, the life of God—the Spirit—unites them in Jesus Christ.
It is impossible to divide Pentecost from efforts to unite the human family. Indeed, this event could be seen as the beating heart of the Church’s efforts to bring people together in efforts for justice (as John so helpfully illustrated in a contemporary example). Even more, it is what characterizes the Church in its particular mode of life: unlike other social groupings, the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe notes, “the unity of the Church is first of all the unity of one life […], the life of Christ” (The People of God: The Fullness of Life in the Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), 29). The Spirit which unites Christians in one body makes human difference and strangeness intelligible: we are not aliens to one another, but parts of one body (i.e., a multiplicity of difference animated and united by one divine life).
3. The Holy Spirit interprets us to ourselves: In my experience, I know what I really want very rarely. My heart is frequently a mystery, and it can even sometimes appear to be a void and waste in some of my more negative experiences. Surely this must have been the experience of Peter too after the resurrection, confronted with the friend whom he’d betrayed three times.
Yet in Acts 2, the Spirit hovers over the waters of Peter’s heart, giving it shape and form, helping him to better understand and express who he really is in relation to the risen Jesus. Peter’s sermon attempts to explain the phenomenon of the Apostles’ speech to the crowd, and it reveals the boldness and understanding which were earlier reflected in his testimony to Jesus’ identity and his attempt to walk on water with Jesus. The difference is that Peter’s sermon occurs on the other side of the immense suffering which resulted from his betrayal of Jesus.
We too are made known to ourselves by the Spirit, but only by being conformed to the whole of Jesus’ life, including the cross. As Stephen so perceptively wrote earlier this week, “The Spirit pushes us into a world of unknowns, of risks, and yes, even of temptations.” The Spirit stamps our unique experiences with the contours of Jesus’ life, in power and in weakness, and, in doing so, the Spirit reveals our deepest and truest identities: being beloved daughters and sons of God like Jesus. The Holy Spirit makes alive the relation of Father and Son in us, giving birth to lives which—in their own unique way—incarnate the life of Christ, for the Holy Spirit is “a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Romans 8:15).
We need an interpreter at Pentecost, because a radically new situation has emerged. We have left a familiar country to inhabit the life of God. To quote Herbert McCabe once again, “After his ascension into heaven Christ poured out his risen life, his Spirit, into the world so that we could live by it. The Church is all those who live by the risen life of Christ, which is the Spirit of Christ, a divine person, the Holy Spirit” (ibid.). This resurrected life is a new territory, a new mode of living, a union with God’s own divine life in the Trinitarian communion. The Holy Spirit teaches us the language, customs, and way of life of this new territory.
To speak in tongues, then, is not simply an extraordinary phenomenon which happened at Pentecost and continues to happen in charismatic circles worldwide. It is the interpretive work of the Spirit, revealing who the Father and Son are, who others are, and who we really are as we live in and grow accustomed to the atmosphere of God’s divine life.
Michael Rubbelke is a doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame. He received his Master of Theological Studies degree from Notre Dame (2010) as well as a B.A. in English and Theology from St. John’s University (2008). He also previously taught at St. Mary’s Central High School in Bismarck, ND. His research interests focus especially on the relationship of spiritual practices and saints’ lives to systematic theology. He especially appreciates the work of Rowan Williams, Herbert McCabe, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Sarah Coakley. After three years of marriage, he still delights in the fact that his wife Rebecca remains the best conversation partner he’s ever met.