Genesis 11:1-9, Rom 8:22-27, John 7:37-39
Reversing the Curse of Babel
Today we come to the high point of our Easter celebration, the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost, meaning “fifty days” after the Passover — was the feast day in which the Jewish people celebrated the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. On Mt Sinai the different tribes of Israel entered into covenant with God and with one another and so became the people of God. God gave them the Ten Commandments as a guide to show them how to be a people, because being people of God means relating to God and to one another in a way that God Himself has mapped out, not in the way that we think is right. Proverbs 14:12 says “There is a way that seems right to a people, but in the end it leads to death.” The beginning of wisdom, the beginning of true religion, therefore, is when we realize that as humans we are limited and shortsighted, and so we ask God to show us how to be the people of God that He has created us to be.
Whenever human beings forget how limited we are and try to take the initiative in our dealings with God, what inevitably follows is disaster. An example is the story of the Tower of Babel that we are told in Gen 11 where human beings decided to build a tower that would reach to heaven. In this way they would have access to God whenever they wanted, in this way they could manipulate God. But in the process of building the human bridge to heaven God came and confused their languages. They began to speak different languages, there was no more communication, no more understanding among them, and they could no longer work together. The result was the proliferation of languages and human misunderstanding.
Does the story of Babel remind you of the story we read today from the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples of Jesus speaking in other languages? Actually the two stories are related. But Pentecost is not a repeat of Babel, Pentecost is a reversal of Babel, and this for three reasons:
- At Babel human beings decided to build a tower to God by their own effort; at Pentecost it is now God who decides to build a bridge to humans by sending the Holy Spirit. Babel was a human initiative, a human effort, Pentecost is a divine initiative, a divine activity through the Holy Spirit.
Imagine this: Jesus ascends to heaven and mandates the disciples to spread the Good News from Jerusalem to all Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. But the task is too much for them. How could these twelve, uneducated, rural fishermen from Galilee go out and address the learned world of Greek philosophers and Roman poets. Moreover even their fellow Jews are hostile to them. So what do they do? They go in and pray, and wait and pray, and wait — for God’s initiative. And as soon as God gives the sign of the Holy Spirit, there they go, all out on the streets boldly and fearlessly proclaiming the Good News.
What God asks of us as believers always seems impossible. And it is indeed impossible if we rely on our own initiatives and will power alone. But if, like the disciples, we realize that godliness is above us, and so commit ourselves to waiting daily on God in prayer, God will not be found wanting. At the opportune time God will send the flame of the Holy Spirit to invigorate us, and change us from lukewarm to zealous, fervent, enthusiastic believers.
- Babel was a requiem of misunderstanding, Pentecost is a chorus of mutual understanding. The miracle of Pentecost is very different from the miracle of Babel. At Babel, the people came together with one language, understanding themselves. After God’s intervention they dispersed no longer understanding each other. At Pentecost, on the other hand, people of different ethnic backgrounds (Persians, Asians, Romans, Egyptians, Libyans, Arabs, etc) came together unable to communicate, but after the miracle of Pentecost, they said, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that we hear them, each of us in our own language?” (Acts 2:7-8).
In order words, as Peter, for example, spoke everyone from all the different language groups gathered there would hear Peter speaking in their own language. The miracle of Pentecost was a miracle of mutual understanding, a restoration of that precious gift that humanity lost at Babel. Now, someone might ask, is there such a language that one could speak and everybody would understand in their own mother tongue? The answer is yes. Ant the name of that language is LOVE. Love is the language that all women and men understand irrespective of ethnic background. Everybody understands when you smile. Love is the language of the children of God, the only language we shall speak in heaven.
- Finally, Pentecost differs from Babel in its result. Babel resulted in the disintegration of the human family into different races and nationalities. Pentecost, on the other hand, brings all peoples together and reunifies them under one universal family. This universal family embracing all races and nationalities is called church. “Catholic” means “universal”. On Pentecost we celebrate the birthday of the Church. Today is, therefore, an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to be active and faithful members of this family of God we call Church.
Fulton J. Sheen once said about the church that even though we are God’s chosen people, we often behave more like God’s frozen people. God’s frozen people indeed: frozen in our prayer life, frozen in the way we relate with one another, frozen in the way we celebrate our faith. We don’t seem to be happy to be in God’s house; we are always in a hurry to get it over and done with as soon as possible. Today is a great day to ask the Holy Spirit to rekindle in us the spirit of new life and enthusiasm, the fire of God’s love.