20 May 2018

‘All of them were filled with
the Holy Spirit and began
to speak in other languages’

Seeing the world in a new light … the colours of Collioure inspired Matisse, Picasso and other artists a century ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 20 June 2018,

The Day of Pentecost, or Whit Sunday.

Readings: Acts 2: 1-21; Psalm 104: 26-36, 37b; Romans 8: 22-27; John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15.

9.30 a.m., The Parish Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have just had a fresh experience, culturally and linguistically, over the past few days.

I have been to France before, visiting Paris at least half a dozen times. But last week, for the first time ever, I spent a few days in the south of France, thanks to the welcome and the hospitality of a friend who moved there from Dublin many years ago.

I have known what to expect in Paris. But I went without any expectations of what to see, taste or experience in the south of France.

We visited old castles and cathedrals, vineyards and galleries, walked by river banks and marinas, and spent some time strolling around the harbour, beaches and castle at Collioure, with its pastel-coloured houses and streets, which provided so much inspiration for artists a century ago, including André Derain, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

First impressions can never be repeated, but my first impressions of the South of France include the clear translucent light that must have inspired artists like Matisse and Picasso, and the very clear fact that I was in a bilingual part of France. Everywhere signs are in both French and Catalan – road signs, place names, directions, menus, advertising, notices at historical sites such as castles and cathedrals.

French is not one of my languages, but in Perpignan, Collioure and throughout Roussillon I was bilingual in my linguistic short-fallings, able to understand many of the signs and the questions in shops and in restaurants, but unable to respond in either French or Catalan.

Of course, I enjoy languages, and can find myself sitting back and enjoying listening to other people in conversation. But so often, by the time I have translated what I want to say and try to utter those translated thoughts, the conversation has moved on quite naturally to another subject or topic.

I am a slow learner when it comes to languages, but it still does not take away from the pleasure and enjoyment I get from being immersed in another language.

Learning another language can open our eyes to fresh insights and new aspects of the world around us.

Sometimes, it can be like the experiences of those artists a century ago in Collioure, seeing everything in a new light, and finding that experience is like an awakening by the Holy Spirit.

French has at least two words for the colour blue, bleu and azure, while Greek has at least four: κυάνεος (kyáneos) or dark blue, which became cyan in English; γλαυκός (glafkós) for light blue; θαλασσί (thalassí) for ocean or sea blue; and μπλε (ble), which is a loan word from French.

Ever since I learned to distinguish those words in Greek, my eyes have come to see not just four hues of blue, but four different colours of blue.

We use the words please, thanks and pleasure differently in different languages.

A sea of blue by the beach in Platanes near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The languages we speak can shape the way we think, and they can offer bright new aspects of and insights into life.

This is true too in theology and how we express our faith, our values, our beliefs.

In the New Testament, Saint Paul uses four different words for love.

Quite often, the divisions and theological quarrels in the Early Church were not about essential beliefs, but about problems in translation. They argued about words that seemed to distinguish between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit being of the same or similar substance or nature, and so on.

Today, too often, we base theological assertions that are founded on Biblical sayings, not on the words and phrases themselves in their original Biblical Hebrew or Greek, but on a translation that has been produced by a committee. And accepting that translation puts a lot of trust – too much trust – in the translators.

There is a saying in many languages that the translator is a traitor. The Italian phrase is Traduttore, traditore. When we try to translate any text, whether it is the Bible or any other book, we already display our own presumptions and even prejudices by the words we give preference to.

Anyone who has tried knows how difficult it is to translate poetry, and how it is impossible to translate a joke.

Languages are a gift from God that offer us new insights into creation, into the world, into other people.

The story of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-11) tells us that languages divided us in the world, set us apart from each other, were an expression of disunity and conflict in humanity.

But that was then, and Pentecost is now. Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. Now we can appreciation that each culture, each society, each people, each individual, can have a fresh insight into God, through the Holy Spirit, who leads us through the love God the Son, to the majesty of God the Father.

Instead of languages being a barrier, the disciples find in our first New Testament reading this morning (Acts 2: 1-21) that the good news is not reserved to one linguistic group or culture, but can have fresh meaning for Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs – each in their own languages.

And that is equally true of every other culture, people, nation, generation and society.

The very people who were once counted out as ethnic or linguistic minorities, the religious curiosities and the perceived oddities, those who dress, and appear, and sound and look different, whose foods and perfume and bodily odours are marked by variety, are told today, on the Day of Pentecost, that you are counted in as God’s own people.

Pentecost is the undoing of Babel. The barriers we built in the past, the walls we use to separate ourselves from each other, particularly in our use of language to exclude rather than include, are torn apart by the Holy Spirit who rushes in and breaks down all the walls that separate us from those we think are different because of how they sound, look and smell.

Pentecost celebrates the over-abundant generosity of God. This generosity is beyond measure, to the point that it challenges us, surprises us, startles us.

So often we want to box-in, contain or marginalise the Holy Spirit by our use of language.

And, indeed, there are more languages than our verbal, spoken and written languages.

We have different body languages: how we look at each other, how we shrug our shoulders, how we point and gesture, are all as unique as spoken languages, but much more difficult to translate, and help to keep those we see as the outsider on the margins.

We have different liturgical languages. We are very good as Anglicans – and I saw it at General Synod in Armagh less than two weeks ago – of counting people ‘in’ or ‘out’ because we are too evangelical or too Anglo-Catholic, too low or too high, too liberal or too conservative, and so on.

We still use language like that to paint people into corners that are often not of their own making.

This morning’s account of the first Day of Pentecost is a sharp reminder that Pentecost is for all. The Holy Spirit is not an exclusive gift for the 12, for the inner circle, for the believers, or even for the Church. The promises that God will pour out his Spirit on all (verse 17) is a promise for all without regard to gender, age or social background (verses 17-21), is a promise of God’s salvation is for everyone (verse 21).

The gift of the Holy Spirit does not stop being effective the day after this Day of Pentecost.

God never leaves us alone. This is what Christ promises the disciples, the whole Church, in the Gospel reading, as he breaks through the locked doors and breaks through all their fears (John 20: 19-23).

We need have no fears, for the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space, of gender and race, of language and colour.

Pentecost includes all – even those we do not hear or understand. It is just simply that I have not yet learned to hear or understand them. But the gift of the Holy Spirit encourages me to hear them with a new sound and to see them in a new light.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This sermon was prepared for the Day of Pentecost, 20 May 2018

The pastel colours of a side-street in Collioure … languages can shape how we see the world and how we see others (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Acts 2: 1-21:

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

‘Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them’ (Acts 2: 3) … Pentecost by El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos)

Liturgical colour: Red

Greeting (from Easter until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Great and wonderful are your deeds,
Lord God the Almighty

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

You are the King of glory, O Christ.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
who on the day of Pentecost
sent your Holy Spirit to the apostles
with the wind from heaven and in tongues of flame,
filling them with joy and boldness to preach the gospel:
By the power of the same Spirit
strengthen us to witness to your truth
and to draw everyone to the fire of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.
If we live in the Spirit, let us walk in the Spirit.
Galatians 5: 22


Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
according to whose promise
the Holy Spirit came to dwell in us,
making us your children,
and giving us power to proclaim the gospel throughout the world:

Post Communion Prayer:

Faithful God,
who fulfilled the promises of Easter
by sending us your Holy Spirit
and opening to every race and nation the way of life eternal:
Open our lips by your Spirit,
that every tongue may tell of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


The Spirit of truth lead you into all truth,
give you grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
and to proclaim the words and works of God …


Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!


386, Spirit of God, unseen as the wind

294, Come down, O Love divine

293, Breathe on me, breath of God

Evie Hone’s window in Saint Patrick’s Church on the Hill of Tara, Co Meath, has images of Pentecost interspersed with images of Saint Patrick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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