The readings for Mass today present us with two paths that we might take to reach heaven: the way of presumption and self-aggrandizement and the way of the Cross. Both paths entail suffering and loss at some point along the way, yet both also have very different outcomes. If we choose to take the path of the tower of Babel, to seek our own way and make a name for ourselves, our efforts will most likely end in frustration and confusion. Whereas if we choose the way of the Cross, we will suffer for a time and experience many deaths along the way, yet we enjoy the promise of an eternal reward in heaven. The way of Babel means having an exaggerated trust in our own achievements and ingenuity while the way of the Cross necessarily entails complete and total trust in the Lord and self-abandonment to his will. This is the choice that is always placed before us, the way of eternal frustration or the way of eternal happiness.
The people involved with the tower of Babel construction project seemed to have fallen for the lie of the ancient serpent, who told Adam and Eve that they would not die if they ate of the forbidden fruit. Instead, they would become like God, knowing good and evil. In other words, the serpent is essentially suggesting that God is holding something back from Adam and Eve, God’s own divine life. They can presume to attain to divinity themselves by their own efforts. All it would require is to disobey the command of God. Then they would become like God themselves. What Adam and Eve did not consider is that God grants a share in His own divine life with whomever He wishes. It is not something that a person can presume to take from God without His having first offered it to them. Divinity is not something that can be acquired through one’s own efforts. Rather, it is something in which only God can allow his creatures to participate. We cannot presume to take from God that which does not properly belong to us, we can only accept it from God as a gift that He freely offers us in His goodness and kindness. To act with pride and presumption shows an utter lack of faith and trust on our part.
“The way of Babel means having an exaggerated trust in our own achievements and ingenuity while the way of the Cross necessarily entails complete and total trust in the Lord and self-abandonment to his will.”
But how do we know that the people who constructed the tower were acting with pride and presumption? Because the text of Genesis tells us so. There is nothing wrong per se with building a large tower with its top in the sky. God had not previously issued a command against building such a tower. Yet He did instruct man from the beginning to fill the earth and subdue it. God had created man to be stewards of all of creation, to multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Instead of obeying God and cooperating with God in His work of creation, man became fixated upon himself and seeking his own glory. When he has the idea to build the tower, man says, “let us make a name for ourselves.”
The Hebrew word for “name” is “Shem,” which is the name of one of the sons of Noah, to whom is given the greatest of blessings of all Noah’s sons. It is Shem who is appointed by Noah to rule over the other sons and their descendants. Yet the people wish to make a “Shem” for themselves, to essentially take a blessing for themselves, through their own efforts and ingenuity. They forget that all blessings come from the Lord of heaven, not from His creatures on the earth. Since they set out to build the tower to make a name for themselves and to avoid being scattered over all the earth, the Lord comes down from heaven and confuses their language, which results in the people being scattered over all the earth. The very outcome they feared the most is precisely what happens to them because of their pride and presumption. Access to heaven cannot be attained through human efforts and ambition alone.
“Access to heaven cannot be attained through human efforts and ambition alone.”
But in the Gospel of Mark today, Jesus gives us a different way to enter heaven. Instead of the way of pride, he shows us the path of humility, of denying ourselves and our own selfish ambitions. Instead of taking up the tools of presumption and constructing our own way to heaven, Jesus exhorts us to take up our crosses. Instead of seeking to preserve our lives in this world, he exhorts us to lose our lives for his sake and that of the Gospel. It is only in this way, the way of the Cross, that we can be saved and enter the kingdom of heaven. God bestows His favor upon those who take the path of self-denial, of suffering out of love for God and neighbor, and of losing one’s life in this world. The way of the Cross effectively puts an end to our selfish pride and presumption and enables us to place our faith and trust entirely in the Lord Jesus. He has given us the only path to heaven through the Cross and invites us all to join him on the way. I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite Lenten hymns, with which I will close as we prepare to enter the season of Lent next week: “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”
– Fr. Matthew Mary, MFVA