Monthly Archives: February 2019

Building a City

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Tower of Babel. Pieter Bruegel the Elder. 16th century

After the deluge, God renews a covenant with creation, and the descendants of Noah begin to fulfill God’s command “to increase and multiply and fill the earth.”

But then something else happens: human beings, desiring to be together, join in building a city. A common origin and language draws them together, not just as families or clans, but in a larger society. They look for human flourishing in a city. (Genesis 11,1-9)

Unfortunately, they overreach. They want to get their heads into the heavens and so they plan a tower into the sky. Like Adam and Eve reaching for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they want to be like gods, “presuming to do whatever they want” God says. Their tower becomes a Tower of Babel. It collapses and they’re scattered over the world, leaving their city unfinished.

It’s important to recognize that the Genesis story does not claim God’s against human beings building a city. The bible, in fact, sees the city as a place favorable for human flourishing. In the Book of Jonah, God values the great city of Nineveh. Jesus sees Jerusalem, the Holy City, cherished by the Lord, the place where he dwells. The Spirit descends on his church in the city. The Genesis story sees the city as good, but it can be destroyed by sin and human pride..

The picture at the beginning of this blog is a painting of the Tower of Babel by the 16th century Dutch artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s situates Babel in Antwerp, one of the key seaports of the time. Its shaky structure suggests it’s too ambitiously built. Still incomplete, it may not last. So the painter offers a warning against ambition and not caring for people, especially the needy.

It’s interesting to note that Pope Francis encourages mayors from cities to plan well. Commentators say the pope, conscious of a rising isolationism that’s affecting nations and international bodies today, sees cities to be agents for unifying peoples. They’re important places for humans to flourish. The United Nations also sees cities as key resources in the challenge that comes with climate change.

The picture at the end? You don’t have to be told. A great city. Still, its greatness will be judged, not by its big buildings or businesses, but how it encourages human flourishing.

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Creation Renewed


For almost two weeks at Mass we’ve been reading about the creation of the world and the origin and development of the human family, beginning with Adam and Eve, from the first 11 chapters of Genesis. An important source for understanding where we come from and our relationship with creation.

In today’s reading God renews with Noah and his descendants the covenant made with humanity and the earth.  Once again, after the fall, as human beings go into different lands and take up various trades, they’re blessed by God. The renewal of the covenant is an act of mercy, the responsorial psalm for today reminds us. 

“The LORD looked down from his holy height,

from heaven he beheld the earth,

To hear the groaning of the prisoners,

to release those doomed to die.” (Psalm 102)

God’s blessings will continue through time. His abiding mercy is signified in the promise God makes that there will not be another flood to devastate the earth. The rainbow signifies hope and mercy.

“I will establish my covenant with you,

that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed

by the waters of a flood;

there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth.” (Genesis 9,12)

God’s blessings will continue through time. God’s mercy will abide. But God does not take away the freedom the human family enjoys. Made in the likeness of God, human beings are free, yet what they do with their freedom and their lives has consequences, not only for themselves, but for creation itself. 

The abuse of human freedom can lead to dire consequences for humanity and creation itself. “When my people did not hear my voice, when Israel would not obey, I left them in their stubbornness of heart to follow their own designs.” (Psalm 81)  God does not micro manage history.

Today some see God’s promise “never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed” as repudiating any threat of climate change, but that’s not the promise made in Genesis. Human “stubbornness” can have disastrous consequences for humanity and the created world so closely related to it.

For humanity to flourish, it needs to have a good relationship with creation. Human flourishing and human relationships are not enough, we need a relationship with creation, not a dominating relationship, or a selfish relationship, but one of love and care.  Creation rises and falls with us.

A World of Talking Trees

“Do you still not understand?” Jesus said this to his disciples in Mark’s gospel right after he cured a blind man who only gradually gains his sight. He has to lay his hands on the man’s eyes a second time before he sees clearly. Is that the way we see and understand, gradually?

The cross takes many forms and I wonder if one form it takes in our time is the cross of confusion. We like clear sight for ourselves and everyone else, but in times of great change confusion is inevitable. Like the man in the gospel we’re living in a world of “talking trees” and that’s hard to take, reasonable, resourceful people that we are.  It’s humbling to live in confusing times like ours..

It makes us angry. There’s a lot of anger around us today, the anger that boils over and lashes out, or the anger that retreats into a fortress of resistence and isolation.

Pope Francis often speaks of patience. He said patience keeps the church going. He spoke once of the music of patience, a patience that hears and waits, like the patient blind man who waits for the hand of Jesus to reach out again.

“When Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethsaida,
people brought to him a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.
Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on the man and asked,
“Do you see anything?”
Looking up the man replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.”
Then he laid hands on the man’s eyes a second time and he saw clearly;
his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly.
Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.”
(Mark 8,22-26)

Noah and the Ark

Where did the story come from?

A few years ago Nova on PBS featured a program called“The Secrets of Noah’s Ark.” In early times, floods were common in the “Fertile Crescent,” the area in Mesopotamia {modern Iraq} where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the ancient city of Babylon were located. Floods, sometimes great floods, occurred, so the people had to be ready. You had to keep your boats handy, and a big boat also– you never knew..

But people then, as now, had short memories. “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.” (Matthew 24, 37-38)

I suspect some Babylonian priests then– meteorologists and story tellers of the age– came up with a flood story thousands of years before the Noah story in Genesis, to keep people on their toes – and maybe challenge some early climate change deniers too. It reinforced important advice: “ Keep your boats in shape and make sure a big boat’s around for ‘the big one.’”

Jewish priests and scribes in 6th century Babylon saw the story a perfect fit for the story of human origins they were telling their people. For them the take-away from the story was not to keep a big boat handy, but to be faithful to God like Noah and Abraham and their families. If they were faithful, God would save them from the flood and bring them  to the Promised Land.

The Nova program showed evidence from today of those big boats there “just in case.”

The story gave hope to the Jews driven from Jerusalem to exile in Babylon where, “By the rivers of Bablyon, we sat ad wept, remembering Zion.” (Psalm 137)  Christians– the pictures in the catacombs remind us (above)– saw Noah as a sign that the waters of baptism saved them from death and brought them the promise of paradise lost by Adam and Eve.

So the story of Noah and the ark is more than a myth.

The Prayer of Abel

“Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as you once accepted the gifts of your servant Abel.” (1st Eucharistic Prayer)

In a homily, St. Ambrose explains why God accepted Abel’s gifts and not Cain’s. His gifts were a prayer from his heart. He brought them to God prompted by the same gratitude that caused the Samaritan to give thanks to Jesus after being cured of leprosy. Gratitude is always at the heart of the Eucharist.

Abel’s gifts became true prayer, according to Ambrose:

“Jesus told us to pray urgently and often, so that our prayers should not be long and tedious but short, earnest and frequent. Long elaborate prayers overflow with pointless phrases, and long gaps between prayers eventually stretch out into complete neglect.

Next he advises that when you ask forgiveness for yourself then you must take special care to grant it also to others. In that way your action can add its voice to yours as you pray. The apostle also teaches that when you pray you must be free from anger and from disagreement with anyone, so that your prayer is not disturbed or broken into.

The apostle teaches us to pray anywhere, while the Saviour says Go into your room – but you must understand that this “room” is not the room with four walls that confines your body when you are in it, but the secret space within you in which your thoughts are enclosed and where your sensations arrive. That is your prayer-room, always with you wherever you are, always secret wherever you are, with your only witness being God.

Above all, you must pray for the whole people: that is, for the whole body, for every part of your mother the Church, whose distinguishing feature is mutual love. If you ask for something for yourself then you will be praying for yourself only – and you must remember that more grace comes to one who prays for others than to any ordinary sinner. If each person prays for all people, then all people are effectively praying for each.

In conclusion, if you ask for something for yourself alone, you will be the only one asking for it; but if you ask for benefits for all, all in their turn will be asking for them for you. For you are in fact one of the “all.” Thus it is a great reward, as each person’s prayers acquire the weight of the prayers of everyone. There is nothing presumptuous about thinking like this: on the contrary, it is a sign of greater humility and more abundant fruitfulness.”

February 18-24

The readings from the Book of Genesis this week take us out of the Garden of Eden to the world where Adam and Eve begin life anew with their two children, Cain and Abel. A tough world that gets worse as time goes by. Finally, only Noah is left as rain comes down, but God’s promise remains. A rainbow spreads across the sky.

The readings from chapter 8 in Mark’s gospel center on the identity of Jesus. The Pharisees and scribes dispute his claims. His disciples believe he is the Messiah, but Peter in Mark 8, 33 calls him to turn away from his mission to Jerusalem.

The Chair of St. Peter the Apostle is celebrated on February 22nd. The same apostle Jesus calls “Satan” teaches about his mission.
St. Polycarp, the 2nd century bishop of Smyrna, is one of the great martyrs of the early church. An old man who wouldn’t give up his faith and died for it.

FEBRUARY 18 Mon Weekday
Gn 4:1-15, 25/Mk 8:11-13 (335)

19 Tue Weekday
Gn 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 10/Mk 8:14-21 (336)

20 Wed Weekday
Gn 8:6-13, 20-22/Mk 8:22-26 (337)

21 Thu Weekday
[Saint Peter Damian, Bishop and Doctor of the Church]
Gn 9:1-13/Mk 8:27-33 (338)

22 Fri The Chair of Saint Peter the Apostle
Feast
1 Pt 5:1-4/Mt 16:13-19 (535) Pss Prop

23 Sat Saint Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr
Memorial
Heb 11:1-7/Mk 9:2-13 (340)

24 SUN SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
1 Sm 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23/1 Cor 15:45-49/Lk 6:27-38 (81)