Pentecost, Babel, and the Ecumenical ImperativeMay 22nd, 2010 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
“But as the old Confusion of tongues was laudable, when men who were of one language in wickedness and impiety, even as some now venture to be, were building the Tower; (Genesis 11:7) for by the confusion of their language the unity of their intention was broken up, and their undertaking destroyed; so much more worthy of praise is the present miraculous one. For being poured from One Spirit upon many men, it brings them again into harmony.” (St. Gregory of Nazianzen, Oration 41)
Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. But no one can truly rejoice in this feast without knowing the great good that has been bestowed upon us on this day. And that great good cannot be rightly understood apart from recalling an incident that took place long ago on the plain of Shinar, where men attempted to build a tower up to the heavens. “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) These descendants of Noah sought in their pride to establish a unified society which, by means of technology would allow them to live in the iniquity of those before the flood, but immune from the divine punishment of another flood.
Here we see clearly the first indication of what St. Augustine would describe later as the “city of man” as opposed to the “city of God.” According to Jewish tradition it was Nimrod who organized and oversaw the building of the tower of Babel.1 Nimrod is in this respect a prototype of the Antichrist, the ruler of the city of man, i.e. those who seek to live as if man is God.2 (Gen 10:8-10) Nimrod and those following him wanted to build a city and a tower, to make a name for themselves in order to preserve their man-made unity, to exalt themselves to heaven while living in opposition to God. God saw that when so unified, the city of man would be capable of whatever evil it purposed to do. Just as He had mercifully driven man out of the garden of Eden to prevent him from eating of the Tree of Life and so living forever in his sinful condition, so also at Babel God acted mercifully in confusing man’s language, to prevent the city of man from carrying out the great evils it would do if united together in opposition to God. God delayed judgment of the city of man to allow man to repent.3 By confusing the language of the men at Babel, He separated and scattered the city of man into various races, languages, cultures, and lands, and thereby limited its capacity for evil and destruction.
Tower of Babel
But God’s redemptive purpose was not merely to prevent man from falling into greater evil; He also set out to restore to man the true unity he enjoyed in Eden, a fellowship in the Divine Trinity. Only by this communion with the Divine Persons can men be truly united to each other; the true unity of men with men only comes about as a participation in the divine unity of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.4 In preparation for this true society coming down from Heaven, God called Abraham out of Ur, and began to form a people in which He Himself would come to men as a man. Finally, in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.5 After His death and resurrection, but before His ascension into Heaven, He commissioned His Apostles to “make disciples of all the nations,” going “even to the remotest part of the earth,” to “every nation and tribe and tongue and people.”6 Yet He told them to wait for what the Father had promised, the gift of the Holy Spirit.7
Fifty days after His resurrection, and ten days after his ascension, while they were in the upper room, there was a noise like a rushing wind that filled the whole house where they were sitting, and tongues of fire rested on their heads, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and by the enabling of the Holy Spirit they began speaking in other languages which they had not known.8 There, in Jerusalem, were men from every nation under heaven, and they all heard the Apostles speaking in their own language of the mighty deeds of God. On that day, three thousand heard, believed and were baptized. On Pentecost, the Church was born.
One of the primary purposes for Christ founding a Church is to undo the division of men against men, the divisions of the human family effected by sin. These divisions began when Adam sinned, but were manifest in a universal way at the Tower of Babel, that tower of man, initiated by men and built up by men. That tower is the paradigmatic referent of Psalm 127:1, “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” Pentecost is the supernatural redemptive reversal of Babel, and this is why the Church is the anti-Babel.9 The purpose of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to reverse that division by means of a divine ingathering. All the nations of the world are to stream into her doors, into one household, the household of faith.10 The Church is the house of the Lord, and because He builds this house, those who labor against it labor in vain.11 This is the stone that “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”12
The Pseudo-Fulgentius wrote:
For just as after the flood the wicked pride of men built a high tower against the Lord, and the human race then deserved to be divided by means of a diversity of languages so that each people speaking its own tongue was no longer understood of the others; so the humble piety of the faithful has made these divers tongues combine in the unity of the Church, so that what discord had broken up charity should reunite, and the scattered members of humanity, as members of one only body, should be bound up together in Christ, the only head, and forged together in the fire of love to make the unity of this holy body.13
Apart from Christ man cannot form such a unity, though he thinks he can. But apart from Christ, man’s attempt to do so is the mission of the Antichrist, to form by the mere natural power of man, the whole of mankind into a universal social and political unity ordered to this world as man’s final end.14 By his own power he attempts to recover each of the preternatural gifts lost by Adam’s sin: immortality (by genetic manipulation), impassibility (by pharmaceuticals), integrity (technological dominance over nature), and infused knowledge (by electronic technology, internet, news media).
By contrast, the Church that Christ founded is a supernatural unity, coming down from Heaven, in Christ, and by His Spirit, at Pentecost. And this is why this supernatural unity is the first of the four marks of the Church, specified in the Creed: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Life of the Church is the supernatural Life of the Trinity, not from man, but from the God-man, and not ordered to natural earthly bliss, but to the supernatural end which is the very perfect and eternal communion of the Three Divine Persons.15
God wants all men to be united through being incorporated into the body of Christ, i.e. the Church.16 This is the supernatural peace that comes only through Christ, the peace that passes all [human] understanding.17 The gift of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was a reversal of God’s confusion of the language at the tower of Babel; the pouring out of the Spirit is the divinely ordained way of uniting men in one body, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism into one God.18 The true unification of man takes place only through Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Church. But godless men always seek a substitute for the divine. And the city of man continues to seek peace and unity through political, economic, technological and military means. Yet the city of man can never find true peace and unity through these means.
St. Augustine explains the relation between Pentecost and Babel, writing:
But lo, say the disciples to the Lord, we are told in what name we are to baptize; You have made us ministers, and hast said to us, “Go, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Whither shall we go? Whither? Have you not heard? To Mine inheritance. You ask, Whither shall we go? To that which I bought with my blood. Whither then? To the nations, says He. I fancied that He said, Go, baptize the Africans in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Thanks be to God, the Lord has solved the question the dove has taught us. Thanks be to God, it was to the nations the apostles were sent; if to the nations, then to all tongues. The Holy Spirit signified this, being divided in the tongues, united in the dove. Here the tongues are divided, there the dove unites them. The tongues of the nations agreed, perhaps that of Africa alone disagreed. What can be more evident, my brethren? In the dove the unity, in the tongues the community of the nations. For once the tongues became discordant through pride, and then of one became many tongues. For after the flood certain proud men, as if endeavoring to fortify themselves against God, as if anything were high for God, or anything could give security to pride, raised a tower, apparently that they might not be destroyed by a flood, should there come one thereafter. For they had heard and considered that all iniquity was swept away by a flood; to abstain from iniquity they would not; they sought the height of a tower as a defense against a flood; they built a lofty tower. “God saw their pride, and frustrated their purpose by causing that they should not understand one another’s speech, and thus tongues became diverse through pride.” Genesis 11:1-9 If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not: this was the doing of charity.19
The mission of the Church is to go into all those nations and languages that were separated at Babel. This is the symbolism of the tongues of fire. By the Spirit of Christ, mankind, separated from God and from himself by sin, is brought into unity by entering into the supernatural society that is the Church. Just as pride was the source of the division of men at Babel, so the humility of Christ in condescending to become man, is the source of the charity by which men are restored to true unity.
Two years ago, on the feast of Pentecost, Pope Benedict XVI said:
Afterward, at the feast of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is shown through other signs: an impetuous wind, tongues of fire, and the apostles speaking all languages. This last one is a sign that the Spirit, who is charity and who fosters unity in diversity, has overcome the Babylonian Diaspora, fruit of the pride that separates men. From the first moment of its existence the Church spoke all languages, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire, and lives in all cultures. It does not destroy the gifts or the history of a culture, rather it assumes them all in a great new unity, which reconciles unity with the multiplicity of forms.20
Grace does not destroy nature but perfects and elevates it, and so the natural diversity of men is not destroyed or obliterated by the Church, but is incorporated and raised up into the supernatural unity of the Spirit. St. Paul writes: “being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”21 The “unity of the Spirit” is the unity that has been given to the Church by the Spirit on Pentecost. The Spirit transformed men who formerly quarreled about who would be greatest, into men who made themselves into each other’s servants, with all kindness and brotherly affection. In this way the Church reverses Babel, not by man’s own efforts, but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Body of Christ, pouring out charity into our hearts, to incorporate all men into that Body.22 As the power of the Spirit had overshadowed Mary when she conceived Jesus in her womb, so also on Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell once again on Mary and the Apostles, and they became for us Holy Mother Church, the Mother of all the living, i.e. those living with the supernatural Life of God.
But Pentecost did not end. Into that mystical Body “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” are to this day still being incorporated, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Church and her sacraments.23 The Church is in this way a sign to the world of man’s original social purpose, the harmonious union of all men. In the mystical Body of the Second Adam, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the first Adam’s sin (i.e. division and strife and dissension and schism) are done away. Instead of murdering our brother as did Cain and the children of Cain, we now, incorporated into this mystical Body, are marked by the charity of laying down our lives for our brothers, as the Second Adam did for us.
Throughout the Church’s history since the first Pentecost, the schisms that have weakened the unity and strength of her voice to the world by adding many other competing voices, are in their effect like the curse of Babel that thwarted the builders of that tower. But in this case they are opposing not the tower of men, but the tower that God Himself is building.24 The Church does not lose her supernatural unity when men form schisms from her. No man can break or destroy this supernatural unity. But as man through sin robs God of the glory He ought to have received, so schism from the Church robs the Church of the clarity of her witness to her supernatural origin and unity, like an eclipse that darkens the light of Christ to the world. Christ has established that by the witness of the Church’s supernatural unity in charity, the world will know that Christ came from God, and that those who love Christ are loved by the Father.25 For this reason, the feast of Pentecost kindles in us not only tongues of evangelism to those who do not know of Christ, but also tongues of reconciliation with those in schism from us. Pentecost as the reversal of Babel calls us to pursue true peace and reunion with all those estranged from us; it lays upon us the ecumenical imperative.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love. Bring all Christians into full and visible unity in the Body of Christ. In nomine Patris et fillii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
- According to this Jewish tradition it was Eber, the father of the Hebrews and the great-grandson of Shem, who refused to participate, and for this reason his language (Hebrew), which was the language spoken by Noah and all those before him, was not changed at Babel. (Gen 10:24-25; 11:14-17) [↩]
- Man can truly live as God, but only in union with the God who for our sake and for our salvation, became man, Jesus Christ. [↩]
- 2 Peter 3:9,15. [↩]
- Those not at peace with God cannot be at peace with one another. [↩]
- Gal. 4:4. [↩]
- Matthew 28:20, Acts 1:8, Revelation 14:6. [↩]
- Acts 1:4. [↩]
- Acts 2:1-4. [↩]
- This is why it is fitting that the Church is built on Rome, which Peter refers to as Babylon (2 Peter 5:13), and which is the natural kingdom taken over by Christ’s supernatural Kingdom, according to Daniel’s prophecy (Dan. 2). At the time Peter was writing, Rome, like the Babylon of old, was the locus of that same human attempt to unify man apart from God, just as Nimrod had sought to do. [↩]
- “Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it.” (Isaiah 2:2) Cf. Gal 6:10, Ephesians 2:19. [↩]
- 2 Chron. 13:12, Acts 5:39. [↩]
- Daniel 2:35. [↩]
- PL 65, 918. [↩]
- “The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 676. [↩]
- If the Church were founded by mere men, it would have earthly, natural happiness as its end. Heaven would merely be a return to an earthly paradise, without disease, suffering or death, on and on forever without end, grace without glory. But Heaven is infinitely beyond the natural happiness of paradise, as the Life of the Creator infinitely transcends the life of mere creatures. Heaven is the eternal inner Life and Happiness of the Triune God, into which we are graciously called to participate. To have Heaven as its end (i.e. its telos), the Church must have Heaven as its principle and source, which is why the Church must be founded by the God-man, Jesus Christ. This is why no society founded by mere men can be the Church. And this is why apostolic succession is essential to the Church, because only by apostolic succession is the activity of the Church the continuation and extension of the supernatural Life and mission of the incarnate Christ. [↩]
- Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12. [↩]
- Phil 4:7. [↩]
- Eph 4:4-5. [↩]
- St. Augustine, Tractate 6.10. [↩]
- Pope Benedict XVI, May 7, 2008. [↩]
- Ephesians 4:3. [↩]
- Romans 5:5. [↩]
- Revelations 5:9. [↩]
- To read an early second century description of the Church as the tower that God is building, see Book 1 of the Shepherd of Hermas. [↩]
- John 17:21-23. [↩]