Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Power of the Word

from the Bedford Hours, Paris, 1414-1423

At one time, the whole earth had one language and few words. And at this time on a plain in the land of Shinar men made bricks and mortar, with which they made to build themselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, so as to make a name for themselves.

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have one language; and nothing will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another." So the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel (Gen 11:1-9).

Now some believe this story is just an etiology – an explanation of why there are so many languages – plain and simple – and that there is nothing else to it. But I believe it means something more for us – and that it has much to do with today’s feast of Pentecost. Today’s Kontakion refers to Babel when we sing, “When the high most descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations.”

The people of Babel were greatly powerful. Nothing would have been impossible for them  the Lord himself says so. They were so powerful because they had the power of the word – they all spoke one language. Remember that it was by the power of the word that God created the heavens and the earth. And now what did humans propose to do with the power of the word that God had given them? (Remember that they could have done anything – nothing would be impossible for them.) They sought not to give glory to God but to make a name for themselves. They sought to build a vain thing. By the word, God created the heavens and the earth, and by the word, the people in Shinar tried to reach the heavens from the earth with their tower to give glory to themselves and to equate themselves with God. 

This tower of Babel brings to my mind the secular humanism growing ever more prevalent in our time, which glorifies humans and regards humanity apart from God as the highest good. This tower is not the way for man to enter heaven – by an act of vanity and hubris – by a work bent on self-glorification rather than the glory of God. And so the Lord removed from among the people the power of the word he had given them.

But not forever. The word comes back to earth from heaven in a new and better way when the word becomes flesh and dwells among us. And this time the power of the word would bring human nature from earth to heaven in the proper way – not by seeking to make a name for himself, but by the supreme act of self-sacrificial love and for the glory of God his Father.  The Word of God who is God does not lift humanity up to heaven by building a tower to human glory apart from God, but becomes human and unites the earthly with the heavenly in himself by laying down his life for us, rising from the dead, and ascending up in glory. 

The Word is first lifted up from the earth not in a tower but on a cross. Then, not content to unite only the living with God, the word descends into the place of the dead, and then, (forty days ago) rises from dead, and then (ten days ago) ascends in glory - finally bringing our human nature to the right hand of the Father in heaven. But even this does not complete his salvific work for us. 

Speaking of his coming ascension, the Lord Jesus says to his disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away. If I do not go away, the Paraklete – the Comforter – will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…. [and] When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16: 7, 13)

The Lord says it is better for him to go away, but it doesn’t feel that way, does it? Don’t many of us long to live in the time of Jesus, to see him face to face, and to hear his voice?

We feel a sense of loss – a kind of sadness on Ascension Thursday. Our Lord has left us staring at the sky. But he says that it is better for him to go so that the Spirit can come. This is hard for us to believe: that this age in which we live – which is the age of the Church  the Pentecostal age – the enspirited age – is somehow better than the time of Christ. How often we long to be with Jesus in the flesh. But this is because we have so little faith that we are with him in the flesh  that the Spirit makes him present to us in the flesh in the Eucharist and in our neighbor. We don’t always believe what Jesus said: that whatever we do to the least of his brethren, that we do unto him. If we did, we would see how it can be that this – even this vale of tears – is the better time: the time of the Lord. We would see that the Lord is with us. He has not abandoned us. He has sent us his Holy Spirit. 

12th century cloisonne enamel on gold
The State Museum of Fine Arts of Georgia
This is what happened on Pentecost: We were given again the power of the word. The Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles like tongues of fire, which represent the gift of the ability to speak and preach in many tongues so that all the people from all the nations, who had been scattered at Babel, could hear in their own tongues the Gospel that the Word has become flesh, was crucified, died and was buried, rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of the Father. In this way, the Lord lifted the curse of Babel. He restored to his people the power of the word – and with that, nothing shall be impossible for us. "When the Most High descended and confused tongues, he scattered nations. When He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity." 

The Lord lifts curses in unexpected ways – not in the way we would. He doesn’t simply reverse the bad things in our lives. He brings us through them to a still greater good. He doesn’t restore to us the immortal life of the Garden of Eden. No, he gives a better way to live forever through death and resurrection in union with him.  

And he doesn’t restore to the world a single language so that we could all understand each other. No, this was not a restoration to one language, but an inspiration of many. This was a calling not merely to civic unity, but to spiritual unity. The Most High doesn’t just restore us – he brings us to a new and better life. The diverse tongues given at Pentecost are still better than the universal language enjoyed before Babel. In their manifold variety, they more fully express the majesty of God. With many voices it is possible to make harmony. 

This reminds me of the many rites and traditions through which the Holy Spirit has revealed the Gospel to the many cultures of the world. The Holy Spirit does not inspire a monolithic church, but a church rich and full of various complementary gifts. Not to all are all gifts given, but to each his or her own gift, for the glory of God.  

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