I. Manually Challenged!
I might as well admit it – I’m manually challenged. For the life of me, I can’t drive a nail straight or use a saw. If memory serves, as a child I even had trouble with Legos and Lincoln Logs. And what an unpleasant surprise that was to my parents. When Mom and Dad were younger (they are currently in their late 90’s), they were the handiest people you’d ever want to meet. They finished their basement, built a carport, painted the house inside and out, created rooms in what had been an attic, and much more. Along the way, they learned to do electrical work, plumbing, and plastering. In the meantime, I was lucky if I could close my satchel!
To tell you the truth, I thought of their ingenuity and skills as I reflected on our first reading about the building of the Tower of Babel. Mom and Dad, of course, spoke the same language but, as you can imagine, in the midst of a project, there were times when communications broke down and tempers flared. “What do you mean?” they said to one another more than once. But mostly, I remain amazed at their ingenuity & skill in making home improvements.
II. What Went Wrong At Babel?
In its description of the building of the Tower at Babel, the Book of Genesis, at first glance, seems to say that God was displeased with human ingenuity and skill and decided that he would disrupt it by confusing human language. When the Lord came down and viewed the city under construction, the impression is given that the Lord wanted to halt the march of human progress. In other words, “If these human beings can build this, where will it all stop?” And so we read that God confused the speech of these residents and scattered them over the face of the earth.
Yet, I think today’s reading demands a second look. Let us ask again what went wrong at Babel: Was it God’s supposed ‘jealousy’ of human progress or something else? After all, we believe in the dignity of human work and the duty to use well our God-given gifts for the sake of the common good. This gives us a clue as to what really went wrong at Babel. It wasn’t the skill of the builders; rather, it was their arrogant attitude: “Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered all over the earth” (11:4). They sought to build independently of God and even in defiance of God.
And we may say to ourselves, “Those folks at Babel were pretty foolish! We’d never be caught building apart from God or contrary to his wishes!” Ah, but preaching first and foremost to myself, let me say, “Not so fast!” How easy it is for any of us to try to build up the Church apart from God even in ways that are not genuinely true to the Gospel. For as we go about the work of pastoral planning, –whether at the diocesan or parish level – we can fall into the trap of thinking about this project solely in terms of managing finances, personnel, and buildings. We can sometimes adopt the language of the business world without pausing to “baptize” it sufficiently – giving the process only a patina of evangelization. And sometimes we repeat churchy language without really grasping what it means. How many sentences are constructed these days using the words of Pope Francis –“encounter”; “accompaniment”; “discernment” yet they lead to nothing. In the process of merely parroting the lingo, one may well lose sight of the mission that the Risen Lord entrusted to the Church on the cusp of his Ascension – “Go, therefore and make disciples of all the nations . . .” (cf. Mt. 28:19). No wonder Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have both warned us against a type of pastoral planning that has more to do with Babel than Pentecost.
III. How Really to Build the Church
It is today’s Gospel that truly shows us the way to build up the Church and it runs contrary to our preconceptions and instincts. Jesus summons us as his Church and says to you and to me: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Here Jesus shows us a radically different way to build up the Church by confronting us with the high cost of discipleship.
So, pause with me over the words, “Whoever wishes . . .” Discipleship is not merely a matter of being born a Catholic or growing up in a Catholic atmosphere, something increasingly rare. No, discipleship is the result of a personal decision to follow Christ even if we are not fully aware of what that will eventually mean for our lives. And the word “follow” doesn’t merely mean that we tag along in Jesus’ company as if we were passive spectators of his teaching, his miracles, his paschal mystery. No, the way to follow Jesus is “to deny” ourselves – to renounce ourselves – in effect, to “disown” ourselves, what spiritual writers of another age called “self-abnegation” . . . This involves letting go of our private agendas, our attachments to sin, our very lives. And this is a truly radical notion, for it brings us to the root of discipleship – sharing in the Cross of Jesus: in word and sacrament, in the Church, in the world, and in our personal lives, in the depth of souls, even in our bodies.
This is what makes us followers, disciples of the Crucified One whose death paradoxically is the source of the fullness of life and joy: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the Gospel will save it.” The folks at Babel sought to gain the whole world and lost everything. We are called to lose everything for the sake of gaining Christ – for we are convinced that we are blessed to the extent that we are his faithful witnesses . . . this truly is the joy of the Gospel . . . and this truly is the way in which the Church is built up from generation to generation. All our plans, all our meetings, all our writings and strategies – all of this will profit us nothing unless we heed the call to discipleship in its most radical form as presented for us in today’s Gospel. For as Tertullian said: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apology, 48). Those who re-produced in their own flesh the death of Jesus are the ones who have contributed most to the Church’s growth – blessed and living witnesses!
All of which, in a curious way, brings me back to my parents. How futile it would have been for them to build and remodel a house if they had not founded it on faith, on discipleship, and self-giving love. Although they used the tools, it was the Lord who built the house. How futile it would be for us to build up a diocese or a church unless we are rooted in faith, in discipleship, and the self-giving love of the Cross.
In our Mass, as at every Mass, we enter into the mystery of the Cross wherein we find the strength to carry our own cross with fidelity and love as we seek to be living witnesses and true missionary disciples. May these days of prayer, fellowship, and reflection at the Mid-Atlantic Congress enable us to return to our parishes and dioceses newly emboldened to build up the Church by denying ourselves. May God bless us and keep us always in his love!