Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut 18:15-20; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28

I can imagine what it might be like if we would gather here on a Sunday morning and someone would come in and say, "I received this letter from the Apostle Paul, the one who got everybody so excited a couple months ago. He says the letter should be read to everyone." So, everyone settles down and the reader begins, "Brothers and Sisters, I should like you to be free of anxieties." Now, I can’t possibly hazard what the response might have been in Paul’s day, but in my own time I imagine the reaction would be an uneasy silence and finally somebody whispers, ‘you and me both.’ Most people today would settle with a significant reduction in anxieties; being totally free of anxieties is way too much to ask.

Besides Paul’s magnificent hope, we today would probably also take issue with the various examples he offers: a husband and wife who spend too much time doting over each other; young adult men and women who are just swamped with spiritual thoughts and concerns. (There are some, to be sure, but they are hardly the norm.) We might wonder what world Paul is coming from. The people he describes are rare birds in the 21st century United States.

Still, anxiety remains a very worthwhile topic of investigation on many different fronts. The social, economic and political circumstances of our country have created lots of anxieties for people. Just earning a living and supporting a family have become major anxieties themselves. They can’t be gotten rid of by responsible parents. They are anxieties that are a part of their parental way of life. These anxieties can be a major part of life’s problems. It struck me how quickly news commentators jumped on those notions of stress and anxiety as possible complicating factors in the death of Joe Paterno, the legendary Penn St. football coach. There were plenty of mental health professionals who supported that probable assessment, noting the negative pressures that stress and anxiety place on blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rhythms. Anxieties are a major part of American life and not soon to be done away with. So, how do we take Paul’s words to heart, "be free of anxieties?"

We need to take a little closer look at this "anxiety" that Paul is writing about. At first glance it seems to refer to the kinds of responsibilities and planning that anyone might do at the beginning of an ordinary day. Early in the morning I take a look at my daily calendar and figure out the anxietiesg I will have to face that day, the people I will meet, the meetings I will attend, the tasks to perform. That seems to cover the anxieties Paul is talking about. However, the word "anxiety" had another alternative meaning in Paul’s day. Religious sociologists have noted that a general religious discouragement was becoming widespread in the 1st century Roman Empire. Despite the Augustan peace, the growing economic prosperity in the empire, and the freedom of worship enjoyed everywhere, more and more people were beginning to have serious doubts about whether any god, any deity could be a source of salvation for them. That attitude of deep doubt was often described as "anxiety." It worked at a far more basic level of the person than the daily anxieties.

Perhaps it was Paul’s special insight that the two levels of anxiety were basically interrelated. If one allows oneself to be too swamped with "daily" anxieties, then that will gradually seep into the basic confidence or lack of confidence that we have in God’s saving mercy and gracious salvation. It’s our challenge to guard against that. We are here, today, at this celebration of the Eucharist, to reaffirm and strengthen our confidence in God’s saving mercy. Let’s do just that as we continue our prayer of the Eucharist.

Sunday, January 1, 2012