by Father Mike Stubbs
Lectors for this Sunday’s Mass for the solemnity of Pentecost will encounter the annual test of their abilities in the first reading, Acts 2:1-11. A list of tongue twisters will challenge the lectors: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. If they can pronounce those names, they can pronounce anything.
These strange-sounding names identify the wide assortment of people who have traveled as pilgrims to Jerusa- lem for the day of Pentecost and have heard the disciples preaching about Jesus.
To their amazement, this diverse crowd has under- stood the message, even though it has not been communicated in a language that they would ordinarily understand. They wonder: “Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language?”
As Galileans, the disciples most probably would have been speaking in Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew. Aramaic was widely spoken in the Middle East. It served for centuries as the lingua franca for the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires, which had succeeded each other. Even after their power had waned, that language continued its hold on the area among the common people.
Once Alexander the Great conquered the Middle East, he spread the Greek language and culture. That language remained important in that region, even after the Romans established their empire, especially for commercial, political and cultural uses. But often, it was spoken as a second, not first, language. If the crowd of pilgrims did not speak Aramaic or Greek as their first language, then what did they speak? They identify themselves as “both Jews and converts to Judaism.” Especially those who were converts most probably relied on the local language or dialect as their first language, before learning either Greek or Aramaic. For example, Acts 14:1 mentions the Lycaonians as speaking their own distinct language, as opposed to Greek.
The Parthians and Medes lived in the region that we now call Iran. The Elamites lived near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the area now called Iraq. Cappadocia, Phrygia and Pamphylia are all now part of Turkey. These different groups would all have had languages of their own. Their pilgrims in Jerusalem could have spoken those languages as their native tongue, rather than Aramaic.
Cyrene in northern Africa had been colonized by Greece, so its inhabitants may have spoken Greek as their first language. Even the pilgrims from Rome may have spoken Greek rather than Latin as their first language. In any case, they would have been amazed to understand the disciples’ preaching.
The miracle of understanding that takes place on Pentecost brings together this di- verse group to hear the good news about Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ will unite them. Previous human empires often attempted to create unity in their conquered peoples by imposing one universal language on them.
But the rule of Christ the king would transcend linguistic differences, to enable all people to proclaim praise to Almighty God.