Yesterday, in his post “Tongues of Fire,” Steve Pankey introduced me to a new word: “xenoglossy,” which means the act of speaking or writing in a language unknown to the speaker/writer. For example, if this blog suddenly switched into Croatian (without the help of Google Translator), it would be evidence of xenoglossy. Because I don’t know the first thing about Croatian, my sudden ability to communicate in it would be a gift from beyond—presumably a work of the Spirit.
In that post, Steve takes time to distinguish between the speaking in tongues we encounter this Sunday in the Pentecost moment of Acts 2 and the more common though still pretty strange version of speaking in tongues that some Christians practice as an ongoing spiritual exercise. That version of speaking in tongues, known as “glossolalia,” is the Spirit-given ability to speak “in the tongues of angels,” which is to say in a “language” that no one other than God and the angels and, in some very rare circumstances, someone else in the room who has the Spirit-given gift of interpretation can understand. In other words, it’s a holy babbling that to most of us sounds nonsensical. Pentecost, Steve reminds us, is about the former—the good news of Jesus Christ being spoken in languages that transcend any national or ethnic barrier. That’s right, of course, but I want to push the envelope just a little bit further and say that it’s also about the latter, too.
Steve acknowledges that he “grew up going to a fairly charismatic Episcopal Church,” and I, too, should mention that I went to an Anglican (in the true Church-of-England sense of that word not in the schismatic sense) seminary that, by Episcopal Church standards, was remarkably charismatic. Individuals regularly prayed or sang in tongues at the weekly seminary Communion service. In fact, at one infamous service, the presider even encouraged individuals in the congregation to pray or sing in tongues during the Sanctus. That moment, whilst beautiful and Spiritually strange, caused some controversy among those in the community who took the Articles of Religion and its prohibition on such speaking in tongues in public worship seriously.
But I was drawn deeply to the Spirit-filled prayer life of our college. I had a prayer partner who prayed every morning before dawn in a language I could not understand, and I earnestly desired that gift. I wanted to pray with him…like him. I begged that God would give me the gift of speaking in tongues. And I prayed for the gift of interpretation. I practiced moving my tongue and lips in ways that made sounds that made no sense to me, but there was no breath of the Spirit in my babbling. Instead, all I got was a dream in which I did actually speak in tongues, but it was more like the traditional Muslim prayers on a small rug with my head touching the ground. In other words, I was disappointed.
The process of seeking a gift and not receiving it, however, left an imprint on my spiritual identity. In that time, I learned to appreciate that spiritual gifts are just that—gifts—things that come from somewhere and someone else. They do not come from within. I do not have them on my own. They are granted (or not) by the Spirit. Pentecost is recognition that God’s powerful work in the world is not a human invention. It is a gift from above.
In the ancient tradition of our church, we recognize that the apostles received the Holy Spirit, which came down from heaven like “divided tongues, as of fire.” Bishops are the successors of the apostles, and they wear their funny pointy little hats called “mitres” to remind us of those tongues of fire. And originally (and still in the Orthodox tradition) bishops were the only ones in the church who baptized others. They had been given a share of the Spirit at their ordination as bishops—their link with the apostles—and they were the ones who doled out shares of that Spirit through baptism. In the Western Church, we’ve changed that pattern and let anyone baptize but only allow presbyters (aka “elders” or “priests”) to chrismate the baptized with an oil that must be consecrated by the bishop. That’s a loose connection to the former process, but the tie is still important. Baptism is the means by which we receive a share of that same Spirit that came down at Pentecost.
I want to encourage the church to seek the gifts of the Spirit, which were given at Pentecost and are still given through baptism. Maybe that means xenoglossy or glossolalia, but it probably means something else. What spiritual gifts are we given? I don’t mean talents or skills—what we’re good at. What external power has been bestowed upon us? What is our spiritual giftedness? May it be just as powerful and dramatic as the original Pentecost that we celebrate this Sunday.