The Vigil Mass for Pentecost Sunday, celebrated on the day before, begins with the Tower of Babel reading from the Book of Genesis. You recall what it’s about: an effort of the human race to build a tower to the sky and “so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” The story also notes that everyone spoke the same language – so coordination was guaranteed. Bricks and mortar were prepared and work begun. Except that, part way up, the whole effort became a divine comedy. God diversified their language – this fellow speaking let’s say Greek, this one Persian, this one Japanese. The project collapsed into the state of affairs we have today where differences of language (and ways of thinking) often isolate people from one another, polarize them, contributing to misunderstandings, even war. So what’s the message of the Babel story? Efforts on our own to attain some kind of supremacy in this world can often lead to frustration, confusion – to wit: look at all the Empires that collapsed since 1900 – including that once powerful Soviet one.
There is a Greek version of such frustration - called the Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a practical joker, liked to undercut the doings of the gods. So he was condemned to push a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it slip his grasp and roll down again – whence he must push it up again and again forever. The philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) saw in Sisyphus the fate of the human race – condemned to aspire to a kind of divine power and independence only to find itself at the bottom over and over – hopeless but ever aspiring to someday know and control everything. Exhaustion – from generation to generation! Human existence as no comedy at all but forever tragic!
But then we have another story of upward ambition that’s a bit comical perhaps because it is influenced by our Christian belief in a God who does not play games but is ever ready to support our efforts with grace. It’s the famous 1931-32 Academy Award winning short film featuring Laurel and Hardy – called The Music Box. The Music Box is a player piano that Laurel and Hardy have to deliver to a home situated at the top of a high outdoor concrete staircase. No problem. They unload the piano and begin lifting it from step to step – one in front, the other in back. And then commences their Sisyphean adventure. They meet a woman coming down the steps and have to come back down to the pavement; they meet a mother with a baby carriage (as I remember) and have to come back down; they lose their grip and the thing goes banging down into the street below. It’s all so human – the human comedy of Nature not cooperating with our proud minds and plans. The force of gravity not conducive to our reaching whatever top we strive for. They finally get it into the house above the steps – but only after wrecking things working the piano through the doors and windows. And the homeowner gets so mad he goes after the thing with an axe. The effort ends in a shambles. And all the while, as I recall, there was a driveway up to the house Laurel and Hardy could have used!
Could it be that all the frustration we experience in life trying to “reach the top”, be it spiritually or in the affairs of business, politics, some quest for perfection, is a message from God saying: you can’t do it on your own. You need the Holy Spirit – who knows your frustration, shares your labor and as St. Paul says stands ready to “come to the aid of our weakness.” Look at the disciples after Jesus’ Ascension. Fishermen, hardly cosmopolitan, maybe hardly educated. No wonder they were intimidated by the mission Jesus gave them: to preach his good news to the farthest ends of the earth. And then came that wind and those tongues of fire – and they were now ready not to climb mountains but to move them!