In the Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises Saint Ignatius’ presents a meditation on the Two Standards as a prayer that invites the spiritual person to examine the method and consequences of self aggrandizement vs the way of doing all things for God’s glory on the road to interior freedom.
Today’s liturgy presents a biblical rendering of the same meditation. The first reading invites us to continue to ponder the Book of Genesis as we have done all week. These first eleven Chapters of the book of “beginnings” were written in a form of literature called myth. The word itself identifies the form with mystery – the mystery that is God’s intention and God’s behavior. Unfortunately, in our all too empirical culture this type of literature is cast along with fairy tales as mere stories – to entertain or, perhaps, to keep small children or “primitive” people happy. But it might deepen our appreciation of these wonderful texts if we understood that Jewish philosophers and theologians in captivity in Babylon (what is today, Iraq) seem to have taken the popular myths of their captives and retold the stories through the lens of their own oral tradition with entirely new twists to establish a deep and confident faith in their ever loving and faithful God.
It is clear that while the Genesis account of creation and the development of broken humanity is not history (or natural science) it presents a wise commentary on reality that surrounded the Jewish captives. Archeologists tell us that the ancient Babylonians built early “skyscrapers” called ziggurats. Apparently, one reason for building them was to pack lots of people together in a small space without great cost, thus enabling large, crowded cities to emerge from which a small minority made lots of money and power for themselves. The Jewish theologian(s) observes that the effect of the buildings was to cause alienation among the people, violence, corruption, and all of the sins and crimes of overcrowding. Such behavior rejects the goodness of God and attempts to wrest God’s ultimate authority over humankind away. So God intervenes and prevents the powerful from achieving long term success in their self aggrandizement. Lack of understanding thwarts the wicked from gaining even greater power over each other and the author asserts that God has purposely caused humans to fail to communicate with each other– thus foiling their plans of personal power and glory.
The Gospel challenges us to reversal of attitude from the arrogant ziggurat builder. Jesus insists that any of us who wants to participate in the peace and joy of God’s reign must deny his ambition, take up her cross and let God be in charge as Jesus does. Rather than trying to accomplish something to make a name for myself, I am invited to let my name die and let the name of Christ be glorified by my work. Such an attitude in any generation has been difficult; in an age of “fifteen minutes of fame” it seems outright absurd. It is the route to full human life, however, and all the delight and joy that comes with genuine human flourishing.
Ignatius reminds us that the companionship under Jesus’ standard is humorous, joyful, respectful and gracious. Companionship with Jesus and Jesus’ friends more than makes up for whatever paltry life we lose to receive it.
The LORD brings to nothing the plans of nations; he foils the designs of peoples.
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