COVERING YOUR FATHER’S NAKEDNESS
“Now the sons of Noah which came out of the ark, were Sem, Ham, Japheth. And Ham was father of Canaan. These three are the sons of Noah, of these were men scattered over all the earth. And Noah began to be a husbandman, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunk, and was naked in his house. And Ham the father of Canaan saw the nakedness of his father, and he went out and told his two brothers outside. And Sem and Japheth having taken a garment, put it on both their backs and went backwards, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their face was backward, and they saw not the nakedness of their father. And Noah recovered from the wine, and knew all that his younger son had done to him. And he said, Cursed be the servant Canaan, a slave shall he be to his brethren.” (Gen 9: 18-25)
This important passage from Genesis, which talks about Ham’s sin of “not covering” his father’s nakedness, but rather “telling his brothers outside,” is read only once a year in the Byzantine liturgical calendar, on this Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent. So let me reflect on it.
In Russian, the word that means “disrespect for one’s elders” is “ham-stvo” (“ham-ishness”); it is named after Ham. When we use this word in Russian, we usually mean explicit rudeness, like talking back to one’s parents or some other superior/authority. But what Ham did is more subtle. Having “seen” the nakedness of his father, he went “outside” and talked about it to his peers, his two brothers. Ham’s sin is not the “seeing” part, because he did not expect to find his father naked when he walked into Noah’s house. His sin is that he lacked the compassion to cover the unexpected shame of Noah, his father, who was the first to experience the effects of wine, and quite innocently “overdid it” when he tried it. He was not some alcoholic father who regularly abused the substance, beat up on his children, or anything like that. Noah was rather a man who had just saved his entire family in an ark that he built, according to the will of God, Who deemed Noah – and Noah alone – worthy to do so. Ham could have at least covered up “the nakedness” of this great man in his predicament. But that is not what Ham did. So Ham’s own son is “cursed,” because our children will tend to repeat our own lack of compassion and sensitivity to our parents.
I am sometimes given to “see” some shortcoming of my parents, superiors and elders. Let me take pause, however, before I talk about them “outside.” The least I can do, I think, for the great people who have nurtured me and cared for me in their “ark,” is gently to cover up their “nakedness,” when need be, as I would want mine to be covered up by those dependent on me, when it is revealed. O Lord, forgive us, as we forgive. Amen!