Monday, August 8, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:9-13; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-33

Our opening reading this morning, from the first Book of Kings, presents us with one of the most famous and controversial theophanies (or appearances of God) in the entire Old Testament. Famous, because it has been commented upon by so many Jewish and Catholic theologians and spiritual writers through the centuries. Controversial because, while it’s fairly clear what God does not appear in (a heavy wind, an earthquake or fire), there is no consensus among scholars about what God does appear in. Let me explain.

The text says, "After the fire, there was a ...... what?" The three Hebrew words that appear next can be translated in any number of different ways. The translation we heard today says "After the fire, there was a tiny whispering sound," which is probably one of the least preferred translations by the majority of theologians and spiritual writers. It’s least preferred because it’s simply too definite. The reader can understand or imagine exactly what it is that God appears in----a tiny whispering sound." No element of paradox is contained in that phrase, and paradox is what needs to be there. The translation that most Jewish scholars and spiritual writers would prefer is: "After the fire, there was the sound of silence," which, by the way, gives a whole new dimension to that old Simon and Garfunkel song. The sound of silence is surely a paradox. The majority of commentators think the text was deliberately left ambiguous by the scriptural writer to accent the impossibility of ever having an accurate image of God. The Mysteriousness of God must always be remembered.

I think most of us would agree that we generally would prefer to have things clearcut, that something is what it says it is. We all know well the frustration of walking away from a conversation, realizing that we really aren’t sure what the other person said or meant. And yet, so many writers and artists through the ages have been trying to get people to see "that’s just the way it is sometimes." Many times things are not clear cut, and eventually one has to accept that and move on. And, in a way, it’s always that way with God. The Mysteriousness must always be remembered.

Similar to that is another phenomenon, the changing perspective of accepted meanings. Again, let me explain. We can become so accustomed to meanings having a specific quality to them; we just assume that it means one thing, although it may not. Recently, I have been reading Maria Boulding’s last book, Gateway to Resurrection; it was only published after her death in 2009. She was a nun of Stanbrooke Abbey in England. For many years she was one of the most well-known and respected writers on Benedictine subjects in the world. In her last two years she had to deal with a case of terminal cancer. She wrote this book during that period. In one place she comments on how her struggle with cancer has made her see so many things in a new way, particularly some of her favorite passages in the bible. One she particularly liked was Paul’s description in 2 Cor. 12:7-10 about being given a "thorn in the flesh," and how he prayed heartily to be delivered from it. The only response he received was, "My grace will be sufficient for you." She had always taken "sufficient" to mean "an abundance of." But in her illness it seemed instead to mean "there will be just enough for you to get through." that’s quite a different slant.

These two examples show us the different ways that passages in scripture might be understood. We should always be open to be surprised by the scriptures.

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