between-our-steps-06-07-17-doubleAncient Jerusalem was a busy cosmopolitan city. People from all over the Mediterranean passed through, and many would travel to the temple for festivals. The year Jesus died, at the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost, a record reports that there were people from Rome, Libya, Egypt, Mesopotamia, all the regions of Asia Minor (now Turkey), and Crete. With all those people visiting, language was an issue.

The language of daily life in the city was Aramaic, but Hebrew was the language of religious life. The rulers spoke the language of Rome, and the visitors spoke Persian, Greek, Arab, and Latin at least. For the visitors, they had to manage some Aramaic, and if they attended temple or synagogue, they had to try and understand Hebrew.

On the day of Pentecost the year Jesus died, his followers experienced the presence of God in a new way, and when they shared their story with the public, people heard them speak in their home language. Peter shared the story of Jesus in Aramaic, but he was heard in Arabic, Latin, Persian, Greek. Instead of people struggling to understand the language of the city, they were given a story they could absorb.

When an Egyptian heard the story in their own language, it would be coloured by the connotations of that language. When someone who spoke Greek heard the story, it would be shaped by the dialect of their region. The message taken home would be nuanced in diverse ways.

This had consequences for the earliest church. Because language and culture are intertwined, the church took a somewhat different shape in each land. The practices of each city would influence the shape of the church, the spiritual practice, the faith.

The gift of Pentecost was the gift of diversity, but it was and is a gift that has had to be recovered.

There was an early attempt by the church in Jerusalem to enforce the laws they had grown up with for the whole church, things like rules about food. A vision given to Peter and a lot of work from Paul were needed for the church to learn that it was okay to follow different cultural practices in different places.

When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, there was another attempt to bring homogeneity, this time in belief. Some ideas were labeled heretical, and some were sanctioned. The empire could never quite wipe out diversity, however, and different centers developed somewhat different spiritual practices.

As the empire came apart, the leadership of Rome tried to hold the church together, and at some times conformity was enforced viciously.

At the time of the Renaissance, parts of the church recovered the gift of Pentecost. Leaders like Luther, Calvin, and Knox translated the scripture and the liturgy into the everyday language of the people. Hymns were written in the ordinary language of life. And as German and French and English carry different history and different connotations, the church and the faith took somewhat different form in each land.

The church in Rome reacted by clamping down on diversity and again enforcing homogeneity. The world wide Roman Catholic church used one language, Latin, and one pattern of faith and practice.

But in the far reaches of the church the practices and ideas were not all the same. I suspect that when John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, he knew that the church was not as monolithic as it claimed. And that council opened its doors to diversity. No longer would the mass be said only in Latin. Local languages were again endorsed. Hymns and preaching and prayers became accessible to everyone. Even with a single leader that the whole church looks toward, different languages enable different cultural practices.

Recent hymn books of the United Church include several translations of many hymns and hymns that originate in many countries. Asian hymns have a different tonality that some find difficult to sing. African hymns use call and response that some congregations find a challenge. The translation of a Spanish song is not precisely the same as the original.

Because language and culture are intertwined, the gift of diverse language has a profound effect. While this diversity can spark conflict, it also brings freedom.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.


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