By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff
How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?
Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” The miracle of Pentecost is, indeed, just that. A miracle. Each person present heard the good news that God loves and values them, in exactly the way they needed to hear it, in fluent, flawless, perfect language of the heart.
In Luke’s extension of his good news, the Acts of the Apostles, Pentecost is the day that the Church celebrates the gift of God’s Spirit to the whole world. Viewed from a distance, from God’s perspective, the messy chaotic cacophony of voices shouting out good news all at the same time is sacred. Holy. Beautiful. But for those on the ground… I wonder. What is music to the Divine, more often sounds discordant and confused to us humans. Where God can see how all the tones fit together in the transcendent symphony of a universe designed for good, sometimes we encounter the discordant note right in front of us and wonder how it possibly fits into the whole. Standing on the ground, in the middle of the crowd, here and there we might discern a clear tone – here the mournful wail of a soul yearning to be seen, to belong; there the joyful trumpet of a heart’s desire fulfilled. Here the steady beating of a passionate heart for justice and mercy, there the screech of a misplaced intention interrupting the intended harmony.
Anyone who has ever worked with a musical group, or a community of human beings, knows that it takes a lot of time, intentionality, and practice to become proficient in the language(s) of the whole. The flute has to understand how to give way to the French horn, the timpani to enter softly so that it doesn’t drown out the violin, the tenor to listen intently for the bass in order to keep concordant rhythm. To achieve transcendence, there must be an understanding that each instrument has purpose and place in the grand melody… or else we end up with a jarring, jangling mess. As followers of Christ, we can be in sync or out of kilter with the activities of God’s conducting Spirit, and sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly where we are, whether the Spirit is playfully disrupting our carefully laid plans or calling us to enter the song with a little more flare than our natural inclination. The language of music operates much as the language of the heart. And to speak to the heart, we must learn to speak to one another in the language that doesn’t come naturally to us, the language of the other.
Jesus was proficient in many languages. He was fluent in the language of religious insiders, and in the language of the outcast and shunned. He spoke the language of the common people, with an earthy, wry humor; he spoke the language of heady intellectuals, teaching at dinner parties in the halls of the influential. Against the language of dehumanization, Jesus spoke sacred worth. Against the language of fear, Jesus spoke peace and comfort. Against the language of violence and death, Jesus spoke self-offering love, the language of hearts turned to the fullness of Divine life powerfully present in their midst.
In a world that still clamors in a Babel of fracture and division, violence and dehumanization, fear and death, Spirit-filled people continue to sing out the good news of God’s justice, God’s grace, God’s care and concern for all of God’s creation. The Divine Work is often messy and creative, brilliant and tumultuous. The Spirit doesn’t always stay within the neatly marked lines we prefer –she throws in a playful trill here, a rest there; here a melodious glissando, there a diminuendo. Often, we find an ostinato (a repeated musical phrase or rhythm) in places that make no sense, and a coda where we anticipate a new verse. But with curiosity and awareness, intention and practice, listening beyond the dissonance of our own fears and disordered desires, we learn to enter spaces gently and to give way for a diversity of instruments and voices to join the holy Work. And when we’ve known, together, Christ’s love and agony in the yearning places of our conjoined lives, perhaps we will better hear and sing that transcendent harmony that reverberates through time and space: the music of Christ’s own heart beating as One with you and with me.