Monday, March 23, 2009

Gained in Translation

The account of how God confused the tongues of man at Babel tells us, as its primary object lesson, of a punishment for hubris. Man had endeavored too arrogantly to reach heaven by his own labors; and God, seeing as how the entire race was united in this conceited purpose, forthwith confused his language so that no such projects would again be possible for him. Thus we learn what folly it is to gratify ourselves with monuments to our own greatness. The choice of punishments in this case was not arbitrary, for it was primarily the unity of man’s speech—and his consequent inability to escape from the world of his own ideas—that blinded him to his creaturely status. Locked away safely in his castle of thoughts and words, man, in an unfortunate partaking of the pride of Satan, began to feel himself as a power; and no longer did he think he owed any deference to those eternal things which his Creator had established for his own good. Man’s disrespect for an appropriate pathos of distance, his wanton attempt to violate the sanctity of God’s heaven, brought down this humiliation upon himself: that no longer could he claim a share in the free and easy company of his brethren. Forever confused of purpose, forever wary of his fellows, he would now draw swords against himself, and rend with desperation his own flesh. It was a second Fall: a second exile from that communion for which he was made and which alone can make him happy. At Eden he had lost his God, and now he had lost his friends. Alone and broken, with nowhere to lay his head, what now was man to do?

God’s mercy had not forsaken him. It is said of God that He always gives back with His right hand whatever He has taken away with His left. Therefore we are justified in seeking out a deeper meaning in the confusion of tongues, in the transformative power of which we may glimpse, at the center of it all, the depth of His loving concern for His little ones. It is not far to seek, for we have ourselves already given the clue: God has severed us from those who were our partners in hubris, so that we may find each other again in charity and humility. Without the unity of language to spellbind us in a web of common delusion, we are forced to see one another as creatures in need of assistance. In other words, we are obliged to recognize the truth about ourselves. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It is a good exercise to watch the peoples of foreign lands going about their daily business. In this way, we get some sense of how we ourselves must appear before foreigners, and an inkling of how we all must appear before God. When we do not speak the language or understand the customs of the folks whom we are observing, we remain outside whatever particular cultural spell obtains over their land, and we behold them in their basic humanity: gregarious, ignorant, often cowardly, and forever fascinated with the petty and the absurd. But in beholding them thus, there awakens in us also a deep sense of compassion. This is the compassion of the saints, the holy men and women of God’s elect, before whose penetrating eyes for truth even their own countrymen appear as naked newborns. We men will also recognize it as the passion with which we have always loved women (a passion which seeks to remedy a need, but intends no disrespect), when the beauty and receptivity of such a one causes us to rise from our bed of bestial slumber and awaken to a sense of husbandly care. “I stand for her: For her I will exist,” it says (for existence is simply the Latin word for ‘standing out’). Both these loves, the compassionate and the husbandly, feel a real sense of anxiety for the wellbeing of their beloved. Both intend nothing less than her perfection, and both are ready in a stitch to risk everything for her safety. There comes now an irrepressible desire to enter in to what we have found, to descend (if I may use that term) into the world of the beloved. Just so did God empty Himself of His glory and was pleased to dwell among us as a man, therefore to perfect our redemption and bring to us the fullness of holiness.

How great was the disappointment in hell at this turn of events! How infuriated the demons must have been when they realized this had been His plan all along! They had thought to mar God’s finest handiwork; to introduce a poison into the bloodstream of His beloved sons and daughters that would be a sickness unto death for them, and an everlasting triumph of rebellion flung in the face of Him. But this was not to be. In an act at once so astonishing and yet so simple in its purity as to be worthy of the King of Kings, God abided the travails of man until the appointed time had arrived. Then a knowing wink was exchanged among the Persons of the Trinity, and this decree went forth from the high throne: “Now I myself will go down to complete what I started.”

You might have heard a pin drop in heaven. “Himself,” the angels whispered to one another. “But we heard Him say that that the son of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. And did not we ourselves carry the prophecy to Isaiah that said ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’? But that must mean…”

“Yes,” God answered. “I am to be born as a man. In my own image were they created, and now I will take my place among them in expiation for their sins.” The glory of God, which the angels had always beheld according to their own abilities, was at that moment magnified and deepened by an incalculable amount. Something about the work they had been performing for numberless ages was now revealed to them which they had never imagined before. God was preparing to enter the world; to bring his creatures into perfect and intimate communion with Himself. From that moment on, all estrangement was ended as heaven and earth interpenetrated one another in love, not hubris. The uplifted wood of the cross took the place of the mud-and-straw towers by which man had labored to reach his lost Lord: grace after grace descended freely from the mighty turrets, and soul after soul was lifted upwards to enhance the joys of eternity.

But God’s healing will for man was still not exhausted. Not only did he mean to restore us to Himself, but to reunite us in community with each other. The enmity between man and man resulting from the confusion of languages, which was the fruit of Babel, was to be mended by living in accordance with the Beatitudes, the language of love itself. Here is that charity and humility which transforms men into partners in salvation rather than confederates in crime; or worse, mutual victims in a never-ending turnabout of violence. In the context of our discussion, the charity wrought by Christ teaches us to see every man in his essential humanity, which collapses the old word-based categories we had previously assigned to him. The black speech of this world dissolves in the paradox of the cross, leaving the infinite value of every human being as the sole surviving truth.

Consider a teaching like “Happy those who mourn: they shall be comforted.” The mournful man is the stranger of all he meets. He tastes the full bitterness of Babel, for there are none to understand him in his pain. Extreme bereavement is an unutterable blackness: there are no words that can convey it, and no words seem to reach into it. The Christ, however, promises not only to comfort him in his suffering, but assures him that even now he is being drawn closer to God. At the same time, we who have had our hearts torn open in compassion by the love of Christ, see the mourner as our kindred spirit, and would fain take his suffering upon ourselves to the extent we are able. The community that was once destroyed by scrambled speech now has its prayers directly carried from heart to heart through its unity in Christ. And furthermore, we recognize this as being not our own love, the love we have for our fellows who really are admirable (or who, at least, really belong to us in a special way), but as the love of Christ himself, applicable especially to the stranger, the outcast, and the enemy. The reunion of man with man affected by God in Christ is far greater than anything man achieved on the basis of speech alone; for Christ came to restore to us the lost language of Eden, with the surprising corollary that, after much patience and humility, we come to recognize it at last as our own native tongue.

-Matt Beck
Faith and Courage

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