I discovered this week that about one third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers and that every two weeks another language ‘dies’ with its last member. More than half of these languages (some estimate as high as 90%) are predicted to be lost in the future. It is not because of their difficulty or a lack of value – they are cherished by their people. The burden of living in a new culture, often unrelenting, makes it progressively easier to drop aspects one by one, and soon it is only spoken at home, and then only by the older generation, and eventually it is too late to recover a once rich and vibrant cultural identity that is one’s “mother tongue”. This loss bears heavily on the world: a huge regret that takes away a part of who we are and where we have come from. All because we were willing to give away something as vitally important as the language of our people for something else that a dominant culture was offering. It is the worst form of cancel culture when the strength of society enforces the annihilation of the others’ identity to ensure assimilation!
The same is true of the language of our faith. We might start with dropping back to fortnightly or monthly mass, and then only going at Easter and Christmas (God knows I am busy). We may stop celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as if we can do without the forgiveness of sins (God knows I am sorry). We might stop reading the Bible, though I expect many never started. We may even stop praying, forgetting that prayer is the conversation we have with our God and not a wish (want) list or a series of ultimata as part of our bargain to believe. Soon we forget the stories and rituals, we forget the songs and their meanings…and the faith starts to fade. We might say we still believe or that we are ‘spiritual but not religious’, but it is faith on our terms. With a friend (and this is exactly what God is), think about how strong the relationship would be if it went from everyday contact and care to a visit once a year (if you are lucky and do not have a better offer), to never sharing your worries and failures, to never remembering your shared history and stories and never speaking except when you want something from them. Seems bleak, right…and yet completely unavoidable with largely a minimal effort.
When I do sacramental retreats, I often get asked about what would have happened if Jesus had not died on the cross for our sins. It is a thought impossible to fathom for a person of faith. Yet this is only part of the story. What if Christ had not returned from the dead after three days? We would never have the promise and joy of our resurrection – when even death and sin would be conquered. What if Jesus had not ascended into heaven? We would not have the intimacy of the Holy Spirit poured into us to work in us to build God’s Kingdom. What if the Holy Spirit had not come to the apostles on that Pentecost day? The early Church would not have begun, and the message of Jesus would have never spread. Imagine a world without the message and ministry of Jesus! I dare say if we continue to forget our shared story of salvation, you may no longer need to imagine it – it will be our sad reality!
We all like good news – like water to a weary soul or the strength to our bones, so the Proverbs say (25:25, 15:30). What about THE Good News? This Sunday is the Feast of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit came to the apostles and changed the world. Frightened and sad, gathered together in a locked and dark ‘upper room’, the followers of Jesus prayed together. Jesus had been brutally crucified, but had returned to them for a short while, only to be taken away again with his ascension into heaven. There was a sorrow and loneliness amongst them, a loss of purpose and direction. Then (Acts 2:1-4)…
…suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house in which they were sitting; and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit…
At this moment, the followers went from frightened, anxious, isolated people to advocates of the abundant hope and joy of the salvation of Christ in his death and resurrection. From this point on they were compelled to share a faith worth sharing, to spread the Good News of Jesus’ message of our salvation to the entire world. They are our ancestors…we are part of these Good News people and this is our language. So, what was the message of Good News? Luke preserves for us the story of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry entering the temple at Nazareth and speaking from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2):
The spirit of the Lord had been given to me, for he has anointed me.
He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor,
To proclaim liberty to the captives and to the blind new sight,
To set the downtrodden free,
To proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.
Looking around at our world at the moment, I think we might all agree we are in desperate need of some good news. You see, the Good News of salvation is about community and justice, about the care for others and a focus on the needs and welfare of all. It is not about selfish individualism and self-centred attachments to things. There is a saying:
People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos, is because things are being loved and people are being used.
Pentecost is the perfect time to reflect on what you are putting into the world: to ask yourself if you are sharing the stories of your faith – those moments of joy and feeling of peace and calm at the nearness of God. Do you still remember the message? The parables of love and fellowship, of putting God and people before our busyness and our endless pursuit of ‘things’. The meaning of Pentecost goes beyond a Christian concept. In Judaism it is the Festival of Weeks, a harvest festival celebrated on the fiftieth day (seven weeks and one day) after the first day of Passover. After the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the focus incorporated the celebration of the Israelites receiving the Torah – i.e. the Law and First Five Books of the Old Testament. It is about remembering our traditions and the abundance we received from God. Isn’t that Good News worth sharing?
Some of my favourite lines comes from the Letter of James where he talks about faith and good works. It is something to think about for those times we try to convince ourselves that we can believe in God on our terms, and He will understand OR that belief alone is enough OR that good deeds without faith are all that is needed (James 2:18-20, 26):
You say you have faith and I have good deeds; I will prove to you that I have faith by showing you my good deeds – now you prove to me that you have faith without any good deeds to show. You believe in the one God – that is creditable enough, but the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear. Do you realise, senseless one, that faith without good deeds is useless.
…a body dies when it is separated from the spirit, and in the same way faith is dead if it is separated from good deeds.
Let us not lose our shared history as Good News People. The message of Jesus is too important to our culture and the hope of our world to let it pass away quietly without noticing its loss, without a fight. As Dylan Thomas might say:
Do not go gentle into that good night!
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dr Nathan Leber