The Tower of Babel, Then and Now

Genesis 10:32-11:9

Today we hear how, as the sons of Noah spread abroad and multiplied, they built a city with a tower reaching to the heavens. The Fathers see this as an indication of human grasping and pride – the more people have, the more they want, until, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, they even want to reach for what properly belongs to God Himself. Saint John Chrysostom writes,

Notice how the human race, instead of managing to keep to its own boundaries, always longs for more and reaches out for greater things. This is what the human race has lost in particular, not being prepared to recognize the limitations of its own condition but always lusting after more, entertaining ambitions beyond its capacity. In this regard, too, when people who chase after the things of the world acquire for themselves much wealth and status, they lose sight of their own nature, as it were, and aspire to such heights that they topple into the very depths.

God intervenes when He sees such pride, for He knows the consequences that it will have. He sees that human beings are not ready for a common language and so, by confusing their language, God ensures that they are scattered and unable to carry out their intentions.

However, we continue to face similar challenges, for the destructive tendency to grasping and pride continues to influence human behaviour. But, as Saint John Chrysostom tells us, there is a remedy,

There are many people even today who in imitation of them want to be remembered for such achievements, by building splendid homes, baths, porches and avenues. I mean, if you were to ask each of them why they toil and labor and lay out such great expense to no good purpose, you would hear nothing but these very words. They would be seeking to ensure that their memory survives in perpetuity and to have it said that ‘this is the house belonging to so-and-so,’ ‘this is the property of so-and-so.’ This, on the contrary, is worthy not of commemoration but of condemnation. For hard upon those words come other remarks equivalent to countless accusations— “belonging to so-and-so the grasping miser, despoiler of widows and orphans.” So such behavior is calculated not to earn remembrance but to encounter unremitting accusations, achieve notoriety after death and incite the tongues of onlookers to calumny and condemnation of the person who acquired these goods. But if you are anxious for undying reputation, I will show you the way to succeed in being remembered for every achievement and also, along with an excellent name, to provide yourself with great confidence in the age to come. How then will you manage both to be remembered day after day and also become the recipient of tributes even after passing from one life to the next? If you give away these goods of yours into the hands of the poor, letting go of precious stones, magnificent homes, properties and baths.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 10:32-11:9:
These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations; and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood. Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, 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 sons of men had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The True Vine

Genesis 9:18-10:1

Today we read how Noah planted a vineyard, drank wine, and became drunk, with his nakedness exposed. The Fathers see both the wine and his nakedness as deeply symbolic and as prefiguring the passion of Jesus Christ. Saint Cyprian of Carthage writes,

When Christ says, ‘I am the true vine,’ the blood of Christ is assuredly not water but wine. We are redeemed and made alive by His blood. But in the cup it is not wine as such that redeems but His blood. This is declared by the sacrament and testimony of all the Scriptures. For we find this even in Genesis also, in respect of the sacrament prefigured in Noah. That he drank wine was to them a precursor and figure of the Lord’s passion. Noah was made drunk by this wine, was made naked in his household, was lying down with his thighs naked and exposed, and the nakedness of the father was observed by his second son and was told abroad but was covered by two, the eldest and the youngest, and other matters which it is not necessary to follow out. It is enough for us simply to embrace the understanding that Noah set forth a type of the future truth. Noah did not drink water but wine and thus expressed in advance the figure of the passion of the Lord.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 9:18-10:1:
The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.

Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.” After the flood Noah lived three hundred and fifty years. All the days of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years; and he died. These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; sons were born to them after the flood.

I Establish My Covenant with You

Genesis 9:8-17

Today we read of the covenant that God establishes with Noah after the flood. He promises to never again send such a deluge upon the earth and He gives a rainbow as a sign of this covenant. Saint Ephrem the Syrian writes,

After these things God made a covenant with Noah and with all those who came out of the ark with him, saying, ‘All flesh shall never again perish in the waters of a flood. I will set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the eternal covenant between God and all flesh that is on the earth.

God establishes this covenant out of love for human beings, and to show His care for us. Saint John Chrysostom comments,

God’s purpose, therefore, was to eliminate all apprehension from Noah’s thinking and for him to be quite assured that this would not happen again. He said, remember, ‘Just as I brought on the deluge out of love, so as to put a stop to their wickedness and prevent their going to further extremes, so in this case too it is out of my love that I promise never to do it again, so that you may live free of all dread and in this way see your present life to its close.’ Hence he said, ‘Behold, I make my covenant,’ that is, I form an agreement. … See the Lord’s loving kindness: Not only with your generation, He says, do I form an agreement, but also in regard to all those coming after you I give this firm guarantee.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 9:8-17:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

The Value of Human Life

Genesis 8:21-9:7

Today we see how God accepts Noah’s sacrifice and promises to never again punish human beings in this way. Saint Ephrem the Syrian writes,

‘The Lord smelled’ not the smell of the flesh or the smoke of wood, but rather He looked out and saw the simplicity of heart with which Noah offered the sacrifice from all and on behalf of all. And the Lord spoke to him as He desired that Noah hear, ‘Because of your righteousness, a remnant was preserved and did not perish in that flood that took place. And because of your sacrifice that was from all flesh and on behalf of all flesh, I will never again bring a flood upon the earth.’ God thus bound Himself beforehand by this promise so that even if mankind were constantly to follow the evil thought of their inclination, He would never again bring a flood upon them.

However, God continues to be concerned about human behaviour, and the violent corruption of our nature that led to the flood. He gives the earth to human beings for their own needs, encouraging them to be responsible for it. But He is concerned above all, that they recognise and respect the sanctity of human life. Saint John Chrysostom comments,

He is saying that even if you are not restrained from murderous hands by kinship or by a sense of fellowship of nature, and even if you thrust aside all brotherly feeling and become completely committed to a blood murder, you must think twice. Consider the fact that the person has been created in God’s image. Mark the degree of honour accorded him by God! Think on the fact that he has received authority over all creation. Then you will give up your murderous intent.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 8:21-9:7:
And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every bird of the air, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. And you, be fruitful and multiply, bring forth abundantly on the earth and multiply in it.”

Take Up Your Cross

Mark 8:34-38; 9:1
Sunday of the Holy Cross

Today, on the Sunday of the veneration of the Holy Cross, we listen to Saint Mark’s Gospel and hear Jesus Christ’s challenging words about what it means to be His followers. He calls us to renounce ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, and warns us that if we seek to save our lives we will surely lose them.

These are disturbing words and remind us of the great cost involved in being a Christian. Too often we can domesticate what it means to bear our cross, forgetting that, for Christ, the Cross was something that cost Him His life. And He reminds us in this Gospel that, if we are to be His followers, it will also cost us our life.

We might wonder at this. Is not our life a gift from God, and does He not desire that we should live it to the full? Why should He expect us to renounce life? Does God really want us to be miserable? Jesus gives us a clue to this paradox by telling us that “whoever loses his life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”

Jesus Christ came to bring us abundant life and to restore to life those who are in the tombs, as we will sing at Pascha. But if we are to receive this gift of life we need to die to our tendency to sin and to renounce our own selfishness and the many ways it has infiltrated our lives. We need to open ourselves to genuinely following Christ. What this involves will be different for each one of us, but there is no true life that does not involve dying to ourselves. And we know too that, in doing so, we receive the only life that is truly worth living.

In Paradise of old the tree stripped me bare; for by giving me its fruit to eat, the enemy brought in death. But now the Tree of the Cross that clothes men with the garment of life has been set up on earth, and the whole world is filled with boundless joy. Beholding it venerated, O ye people, let us with one accord raise in faith our cry to God: His house is full of glory.

From Matins for the Veneration of the Holy Cross

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The Holy Gospel According to Saint Mark 8:34-38; 9:1:
The Lord said: “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”

 

Follow Me

Mark 2:14-17

Today we witness Jesus calling Levi the tax collector, who became Matthew the Evangelist. This scandalized the scribes and Pharisees, for tax collectors were great sinners who not only collaborated with the Roman authorities but also lined their own pockets. Yet Jesus reminds us that He has come precisely to save sinners. Just as a physician’s task is to heal the sick, so, by calling sinners to repentance, the Physician of souls works with us to heal our spiritual sickness. Saint Gregory of Nyssa comments,

They who use the knife or heat to remove certain unnatural growths in the body, such as cysts or warts, do not bring to the person they are serving a method of healing that is painless, though certainly they apply the knife without any intention of injuring the patient. Similarly, whatever material excrescences are hardening on our souls, which have been made carnal by collusion with inordinate passions, will be, in the day of judgment, cut and scraped away by the ineffable wisdom and power of Him who, as the Gospel says, ‘healed those that were sick.’ For, as He says, ‘they who are well have no need of the physician, but they that are sick.’ Just as the excision of the wart gives a sharp pain to the skin of the body, so then must there be some anguish in the recovering soul which has a great bent to evil.

Although some people – including Levi in this Gospel – experience a dramatic conversion that requires an immediate break with their past, the healing that Jesus Christ brings does not usually occur instantaneously. Rather, it requires a lifetime of commitment, which is why He called Levi to follow Him. Saint Bede the Venerable writes,

By ‘follow’ He meant not so much the movement of feet as of the heart, the carrying out of a way of life. For one who says that He lives in Christ ought himself to walk just as He walked, not to aim at earthly things, not to pursue perishable gains, but to flee base praise, to embrace willingly the contempt of all that is worldly for the sake heavenly glory, to do good to all, to inflict injuries upon no one in bitterness, to suffer patiently those injuries that come to oneself, to ask God’s forgiveness for those who oppress, never to seek one’s own glory but always God’s, and to uphold whatever helps one love heavenly things. This is what is meant by following Christ. In this way, disregarding earthly gains, Matthew attached himself to the band of followers of One who had no riches. For the Lord Himself, who outwardly called Matthew by a word, inwardly bestowed upon him the gift of an impulse so that he was able to follow.

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The Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark 2:14-17:
At that time, as Jesus passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaios sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The Descent of the Dove

Genesis 8:4-21

Today we see the end of the flood, and watch as Noah and his family, together with all living creatures, disembark from the ark and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. We also see the key role played by the dove in searching out dry land as it went ahead of the assembled company.

The dove is an important bird in Scripture and is rich in symbolic meaning. Not only is it a symbol of peace, but the Fathers remind us that the Holy Spirit descended on the Lord in the form of a dove at His baptism. Saint Bede the Venerable writes,

Not only the human beings but also the living things which the ark contained, and also the very wood from which the ark was made, prefigure us members of Christ and of the Church after our reception of the washing of the waters of regeneration. Through the anointing of the sacred chrism may we be signed with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and may He deign to keep it inviolate in us who Himself gave it to us, Jesus Christ our Lord who with the almighty Father in the unity of the same Holy Spirit lives and reigns for all ages. Amen.

Or, as Saint Maximus of Turin puts it,

The very dove that once hastened to Noah’s ark in the flood now comes to Christ’s Church in baptism.

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A Reading from the Book of Genesis 8:4-21:
And in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made, and sent forth a raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put forth his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and lo, in her mouth a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she did not return to him any more.

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh – birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth – that they may breed abundantly on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply upon the earth.” So Noah went forth, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. And every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves upon the earth, went forth by families out of the ark.

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”