Pentecost, Knowledge and Understanding

Dr. Anthony Speca (Politics, Economics and Philosophy teacher and Oxbridge and Independent Study Co-ordinator) spoke to the school at assembly in the Cathedral the Friday before half-term. He managed to link the upcoming Pentecost and exams, find out how:

 

School—on your feet, please!  Thank you.  Now, listen carefully—we’re in exam season now, and this is a language comprehension test.  Don’t worry, it’s easy.  Please would you remain standing if you can fluently speak at least one language. If not, please would you sit down.

Are all of you still standing?  You should be—though I wonder if some your teachers might disagree!  Good—now for the next question.

Please remain standing if you can speak at least one additional language reasonably well—perhaps not fluently, but well enough to carry a decent conversation.  If not, please sit down.

[Repeated until all sat down.  The last pupil standing could speak five languages.]

I’m very impressed that you have such linguistic abilities at your young age!

When I was your age, it was common for friends to ask each other what they would wish for, if they were to find Aladdin’s Lamp in a cave full of treasure, and if the genie inside the lamp were to grant the customary three wishes.  Perhaps you know already what your three wishes would be.

As for me—one of my three wishes would be to speak, read and write fluently every language that has ever been spoken or written in the history of the world.

Imagine that!  Imagine travelling anywhere in the world and speaking with anyone you meet just as though you belong there.  Imagine reading four-and-a-half-thousand year old cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia written in the long-dead Akkadian language just as though you were reading this morning’s newspaper.  No conversation would be secret to you, no book closed to you, no culture foreign to you.

In Turkish, a language in which I could once carry a decent conversation, there is a saying—bir lisan, bir insan.  ‘One language, one person.’  Imagine all the different people you could be, if only you spoke every language that people speak.

Now, let me ask you this—what would you do with such immense power?  Would you make peace between all nations as an international super-diplomat?  Or build a globe-trotting multinational business and make yourself fabulously rich?  Would you go into television or film and become a world-famous celebrity?  Or perhaps you’d travel to distant lands, impersonate people you’re not, and spy on others who think you can’t understand what they say.  Would you use your powers for others or for yourself?  For good or for evil?

In our reading today, we heard that a small group of people once received this great power of languages as a gift from God.  And what did they do with it?  They didn’t use it to make themselves rich or famous, or to spy on others.  They used it instead to serve others.  To tell a good news story.  A scarcely credible story of faith and redemption and salvation that they believed would bring light and help and relief to all people.  A story that they thought had the power to transform the entire world for the better.

Those who heard them were staggered—they seemed to speak all the world’s languages at once.  Utterly incomprehensible, yet completely understandable.  ‘What does this mean?’ they asked.

But it wasn’t a story that everyone wanted to hear.  Certainly not those powerful people who had put to death the hero of that story—Jesus, the rabble-rouser, the religious radical, the false king.  In not just one language, but in all languages, Jesus’s disciples spoke truth to power, just like He did—and some of them were eventually killed for speaking out, just like He was.

Over half-term break, on Sunday the 4th June, Christians celebrate the day that Jesus’s disciples received their gift of languages.  That Sunday is called Pentecost—a Greek word meaning the fiftieth day, as in the fiftieth day after Easter.

It has another name in English—Whitsunday, from the Old English word hwitte meaning white, after the white garments traditionally worn by those baptised as Christians on that day.  But in the later Middle Ages, long after the Old English language had been forgotten, the hwitte in Whitsunday became confused with wit.  At that time, the word wit meant, not a talent for telling jokes, but knowledge and understanding.  We still use it that way today when we talk of someone’s native wit.

By now, the Whitsunday story has been told in just about every major language on earth.  Maybe you believe it, and maybe you don’t.  Either way, you still have to ask yourself—when you speak, do you also declare the truth as you see it?  Even if you have only one language at your command, you can still use that language to speak truth or to tell lies.

You have to ask yourself this question because, I’m sorry to say, all of you are growing up in a brave new world of inconvenient truth and convenient lies, of conspiracy theory, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.

But at the same time, as you clearly demonstrated at the beginning of this assembly, just like the disciples you too are receiving powerful gifts to cope with the new world in which you find yourselves.  Gifts of languages, to be sure, but also of ‘wit’—of knowledge and understanding.

Indeed, it is the very mission of this school to nurture this gift of ‘wit’, to deepen and broaden it.  Formally in class, informally in our many societies and clubs and activities – and, yes, even in exams.

As I said at the beginning of this assembly, it’s exam season.  You’re all having to cram into your heads a year’s worth of ‘wit’ right now—and it’s stressful.  But I think I speak for all of us teachers here when I say that what we hope you remember most is that ‘true or false’ isn’t just a kind of exam question, and ‘right or wrong’ isn’t just about giving a good answer.

No, if we teachers have anything at all to do with your gift of ‘wit’, then we hope you’ll use it like the disciples did—in pursuit of truth and in the service of others.  That’s what you’ve received it for.