Undoing Babel

tate-modern-cildo-meireles-babel-08

“Babel” by Cildo Meireles, 2001, Tate Modern, London

A homily offered at a Service of Lessons and Carols, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017.  

Listen to the sermon HERE.

At the Tate Modern in London, there’s an amazing art installation.  The installation is in the shape of a large tower that fills the room and is made up of about 800 radios of all shapes, sizes, and eras—all of them tuned to different stations.  At the base of the mountain-like tower are large valve radios in wooden cases.  At the very top of the tower are tiny, more recent radios. One hears music, talk, jabber, beauty, nonsense …. It’s a little like a beehive.  The art piece is called, “Babel,” taking its name from the story in the Book of Genesis about the Tower of Babel.

You might remember the story. Humanity begins to drift from God and develops pride and self-sufficiency.  They say, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”  But the people fall on their own pride. The building comes down, they’re scattered, and they no longer can understand each other.  While they previously had all shared the same language (according to the story in Genesis), now the place was called Babel, because their language had become confused.

It’s an old, ancient story that probably arose to explain why people speak different languages and why we can’t understand each other more easily. But it describes a reality we all experience, doesn’t it?  Like that art installation I described, sometimes we enter a room and all we hear is babel, a drone of noise with perhaps a little meaning rising up here and there.

But that’s not God’s intention.  In the beginning of beginnings, in the openings words of Genesis, God creates form out of nothing by speaking.  God’s Word whispers earth and light, flora, fauna, and all that we know. That Word continues through the babel of humanity, through the misunderstanding and mistakes, through the pain and the joy of life….until Christmas.

St. John’s Gospel tells us

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The light shines with love.  The light shines with life.  The light shines with the possibility of understanding. If we listen.

Just a few minutes ago, we heard scripture readings in different languages.  We may not have understood the words, but we heard the tone, the joy, and the love.  The challenge of the way other people talk, what they say, the speed or style with which they say it—all of this can make us feel like we’re living in Babel and can leave us confused and lonely.  But we can also listen for God’s Word, for the life and light of God that lives underneath every word, sentence, or thought.

In art history, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is sometimes shown as the angel speaking into the ear of Mary.  Sometimes there’s a beam of light, and in some cases, there’s a little tiny cross or baby flying through the air in the beam of light. In the Merode Altarpiece at the Cloisters, the little cross is flying through the light of the window, as Mary leans in to hear what the angel has to say.  It represents the idea that Mary LISTENED and in hearing, became full with God.

So often, I don’t listen.  When I meet new people, I’m worried about making an impression and forget to listen to their name.  When I think I disagree with a person over politics or religion or taste or opinion, I don’t really listen, since I think I know what they’re going to say, anyway.  Sometimes before a musical piece, I catch myself not really listening—after all, I know what Mozart sounds like.  I recognize Brahms when I hear him. But when I don’t listen, I don’t hear.  And God’s work in me in limited and constricted.

In this New Year, let us learn to listen.  Let us resist the powers of Babel that would confuse, separate, and deafen.  Instead, let us be open to God’s Word to break in anew, to be born again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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