Toorak Uniting Church

Previous Page

Next Page

Words Beyond Words: Breath Beyond Breath

Acts Chapter 2
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
8 June 2014

It is remarkable that the wind instrument, called the Hulusi, that Joseph played this morning is a small relative of the instrument that Jennifer is playing the anthems and the hymns on today. One a little more primitive than the other and yet both use the same fundamental principle that the power of the breath (or in the case of the pipe organ, the wind) can create a sound beyond itself.

I think it was in the year 2001 that the modern composer Philip Glass composed a musical work for The City of Melbourne’s Grand Pipe Organ. It was to commemorate the completion of the refurbishment of the organ as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations.

The concert was a world premiere and specially commissioned for the occasion. Glass, collaborating with didgeridoo player Mark Atkins, wrote a 25-minute musical work featuring a combination of indigenous and non-indigenous performers: Calvin Bowman (pipe organ), Mark Atkins (didgeridoo), Ron Murray (didgeridoo and clapsticks) and indigenous elder Joy Murphy Wandin as the narrator.

To me it seemed that the purpose of the work was to bring together the most ancient wind instrument we have with the most complex wind instrument, and to experience almost a sense of travelling through time.

Wind and breath are experiences that are common to everyone. We all know how to breathe, pray God, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. And we all have experienced the wind. Whether it’s a winter gale or a summer breeze, we know what it is. We can feel it and to some degree describe it; although that isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Pentecost Wind and Weeks
So once again the Biblical poet-storyteller employs images that are very familiar and yet takes us out beyond the common experience of the wind and the breath. So often the Biblical narrative uses the most common elements of our daily lives and with inspiration and imagination encourages us to see a world beyond the world; to hear words beyond these spoken words and to breathe more deeply than the shallowness of our usual breathing.

Today is, in the Christian calendar, the Day of Pentecost. Like many Christian celebrations, it finds its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. Pentecost is the Greek word that means 50 days. It is 50 days after the Passover and we know that the earlier Christians celebrated Easter at the time of the Jewish Passover; and so they formed and re-formed themselves, and their new traditions that would incorporate the power of the Spirit, from the Jewish Holy Day called chag ha-Shavuot or the feast of weeks. It’s celebrated today as a harvest festival.

I think this is the other important point about the substance of our Christian faith and traditions. Like Pentecost, Christian faith was born out of the Jewish religion of its day. As time and place would have it, the early practices, thoughts and dogmas evolved and changed. There were even periods of history where Christians tried to distance themselves from their Jewish roots. But in essence we cannot be fully what we are to be unless we recognise that our faith is rooted in the past; we stand on the shoulders of others, for which we should be forever grateful. But our faith is also nurtured and nourished by the time and place in which we live and energized by the elements and the stuff of the earth that surrounds us.

Pentecost Words
I said before that the didgeridoo was the most primitive wind instrument that we have. Of course that is only partly true, the human voice precedes all mechanical instruments and was the first "instrument" to be heard on this planet. What may have begun with a grunt and a groan has continued to develop and evolve into diverse and complex sounds; so diverse that we ended up with language groups that cannot understand each other.

The writer of the book of Genesis gives a mythic answer to this dilemma of so many languages through the story of the Tower of Babel:

And the people said, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach up to heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men had built.

And the Lord said, behold, the people are one, and they have one language; and now nothing will restrain them from whatever they imagine they can do. Let us go down, and confound their language, that they may not understand each other's speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they stopped building their city. So it was called Babel; because the Lord confounded the language of all the people: and so the Lord scattered them abroad upon the face of all the earth. ~Genesis 11:4–9

It does seem a strange story on the evolution of human speech. But it’s most probably making a theological point about the human capacity for arrogance, conceit and hubris.

Some scholars have seen this Day of Pentecost as a "spiritual" correction to the Babel story:

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem and at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?"...

The story is best understood - if it can ever be truly understood - as that sense of words beyond words. This story at the beginning of the Book of Acts strongly indicates the universal nature of this emerging Christian faith. The Christian Way will not be geographically, racially, culturally or linguistically bound to one place, one race or one time.

I think what the writer wants to communicate is that they each heard the core of Jesus’s message in their own culture and language. This was not a primitive form of Esperanto (a universal and common language), they heard words beyond words. They touched that moment of insight and what some of us might call the mystical experience. And by that I don’t mean that they fell into a trance; or experienced the ecstatic. But rather that they "got it". Perhaps it was an Aha! moment; an insight where words fell away and the truth and essence to which the words pointed became clear and sharp.

But what I really want to finish with this morning is that the stuff from which these extra-ordinary experiences come is the ordinary stuff of the earth. It is the wind that we can feel on our face every day. Or the breath that enters and leaves our lungs so often without measure or thought. It is the fire that we use to warm ourselves and the words that flow so easily from our lips. These familiar and commonplace elements become for us the vehicles of change, transcendence and transformation when they are encountered through awareness and an openness to the sacredness of all things.

by Mary Oliver

Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light. It was what I was born for — to look, to listen, to lose myself inside this soft world — to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.

Nor am I talking about the exceptional, the fearful, the dreadful or the very extravagant — but rather of the ordinary, the common, the very drab, the daily presentations.

Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help but grow wise with such teachings as these — the untrimmable light of the world, the ocean's shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?

(from Why I Wake Early, Beacon Press, 2005.)

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.