God comes down

God comes down

Pentecost Sunday. Fr Simon Gaine preaches on the readings for the Vigil Mass of Pentecost.

There’s something very odd in the first reading, the story about the building of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the language of the builders and scatters them over the face of the earth. What’s odd is that God comes down from heaven to inspect the tower of Babel, and once he’s down, he then decides to go down, this time to sort out those proud tower builders.

But why does he have to go down to do this, when he’s already come down to inspect the tower? Now I think the writer of the story didn’t really believe that God had to come down at all. I expect he believed what we do: that God just is everywhere.

When we say that God comes down, we don’t mean that God moves from one place to another. This is imagery we use, and imagery we use for good reasons.

The writer of this story has two different reasons here, I think, one reason for saying that God came down to inspect the tower, and another reason for saying that God came down to punish human pride: he has two different points to make.

When he says that God came down to confuse human languages and scatter human beings over the face of the earth, he is making the point that the effects of God’s power are felt down here on earth. God coming down means that his power is felt down here among those who built the tower.

And it’s the same at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles. They speak in many tongues and so their words are understood by people of many different nations, reversing the confusion of language that occured after the tower of Babel.

The Spirit himself doesn’t move downwards, but his powerful effects are experienced down here on earth: people are again scattered as at Babel, but this time to renew the face of the earth by preaching the Gospel in the power of the Spirit.

What though about God’s first coming down to the Tower of Babel? There God comes down to have a look at what is going on. The point being made here is about the powerlessness of the most powerful human endeavour: try as we might, we are powerless to make it to God by our own power.

You see, if the builders of Babel had succeeded in building a tower that went up to heaven, all the way up to God in the sky, then God wouldn’t have had to come down to inspect it. God would have easily seen the Tower from up where he was, and the builders might have hoped to get a glance of God from the tower top.

So how ironic all this is: however high a tower human beings can build, you can never see God from the top of it, and so low down is the highest human tower, that even God can’t get a good look at it from heaven, so has to come down to earth to see it.

The message for us then is a familiar one: however clever we are, however hard we try, we can’t make it to God by our own efforts. If we want to ascend to Christ, it can only be by the power of the descent of God’s Holy Spirit, and so we humbly pray:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and enkindle in them the fire of your love …

Readings: Gen 11:1-9 | Rom 8:22-27 | John 7:37-39

fr Simon Francis Gaine, former Regent of Studies of the English Province, holds the Servais Pinckaers Chair in Theological Anthropology and Ethics at the Angelicum University in Rome. He is the author of several books including 'Did the Saviour See the Father?' published by Bloomsbury in 2015.