Readings: Gen. 9:8-15; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15
Years ago I was teaching in a St. Meinrad School of Theology classroom when the students and I got into a discussion about the passage from the book of Genesis that we just heard this morning. I think we were originally discussing whether or not the human race could totally annihilate itself from the face of the earth. One group of students was adamant that it was not only possible, but very near. I asked them about how they would deal with this passage from Genesis about God not allowing the earth to ever be destroyed again. As often happens, this took the discussion into a whole different direction. Most of the students were not familiar with the scripture passage at all. When we did read it, they didn’t understand it. They didn’t know what the "bow" in the heavens was. When I finally coaxed it out of them that it was a "rainbow," they were astounded. I told them that the rainbow became the biblical sign of a promised future blessing, a future blessing by God. Then I heard this big sigh from one of the students and he said out loud, "Wow! And I always thought that was a great idea that Hallmark Cards had come up with."
Seminary students (and lots of adult Catholics) are often amazed to find out how much wisdom was known centuries and centuries before our times. It is even more astounding for them to come to realize that they can actually learn something from ancient times and practices. One such area where they had a lot to learn was the practice of fasting. Our modern American culture has no awareness of fasting at all. We do know about dieting, that effort to restrict and limit our intake of nourishment. But dieting and fasting are two entirely different entities. Dieting aims to lose physical poundage; it’s all about the body. Fasting aims to sharpen mental attentiveness; it seeks to broaden and deepen the ability to listen. Fasting and listening go hand in hand. Fasting wants to limit sensory input in order to free up our center of awareness to be more attuned to ourselves, to the people around us, and so help us perceive what is in this present moment. In this way fasting has a much different cast than just dieting. In the ancient world fasting was practiced by athletes, by scholars, by soldiers, by anyone who needed a heightened sense of awareness when approaching a challenging task.
The range of fasting extends far beyond the purview of food. For example, fasting may seek to limit the sensory input of sight. That’s why the desert—with its stark and bleak landscape—became a place of fasting in itself. Again, in our own day the sense of hearing may be the most necessary place in need of fasting. The explosion of digital, electronic devices in the past ten years alone have created the capacity to flood a person’s hearing from the time they wake up until the time they fall asleep. People can be texting, talking, listening to music, watching a ball game literally twenty-four hours a day. And they do! There are times when it’s good and even necessary to fast from this ubiquitous sensory hearing and visual overload. Otherwise in all this jumble of sense information where is there any capacity of evaluation? Where do we try to discern the worth of what we hear and see? That’s what fasting strives to do. It wants to bring us back to a center of conscious awareness to accomplish that, to make good evaluations and good decisions.
The season of Lent is a time of fasting, of listening. We should revel in a sharpened awareness and judgment which are the true hallmarks of this liturgical season. And it would do each of us well to discern where we need the practice of fasting in our lives.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Readings: Gen. 9:8-15; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mk 1:12-15
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Readings: Is 43:18-25; 2 Cor 1:18-22; Mk 2:1-12
The current issue of America magazine carries a small article on the religious practices of young people (the millennial generation - those born after 1982). Much of the information is pretty predictable. Only 18% admit to any kind of religious affiliation or practice—down from the 58% it was during World War II. Where the article got interesting was when it began to suggest reasons for this minimal religious involvement. The usual culprits were not discussed: the sex abuse crisis; hypocrisy in the Church, boring liturgy, and so on. Instead the author described what some of the campus ministers at his university had discovered through intense small group experiences with the students: the students wanted nothing to do with religion because they felt unworthy to approach God or anything religious. The problem wasn’t with the Church; the problem was inside themselves. They began with the presupposition that God wouldn’t have anything to do with a wretch like me! Here’s a comment of one of the college students: "Hey, Father, how come before we get Communion we say that thing about not being worthy? That really sucks. So many kids today don’t feel worthy of anything. Why reinforce it right when we’re receiving Communion?" (Feb. 13, 2012, p. 22) That’s a different take on things. You have to begin by helping the students to recognize their own personal worth and dignity.
Aside from causing me some reassessment about the social situation of young people today, this anecdote also made me realize how similar are the readings in today’s liturgy to the situation of these young adults today! The scripture writers are hammering away at trying to get people to realize their "worthiness" before God. It’s almost like the writers begin with the presupposition that people start with the notion that God could never find them "worthy." But the Scriptural message is clearly: God finds you worthier than you could ever imagine, than you could ever find yourself.
In the first reading today the prophet Isaiah pounds home the point, "Remember not the events of the past." Don’t be chained down by your past life. "See, I am doing something new." You have to open your eyes to different possibilities. The prophet makes God say clearly: "It is I, I, who wipe out your offenses." In other words, you aren’t the measure of whether you are worthy or not. God is, and God says that you are worthy. Five hundred years later St. Paul tries to get a similar message into the minds of the Corinthian community. He writes, "God is faithful. His opinion doesn’t waver. In Jesus Christ it is once and for all Yes—towards us." God’s attitude towards us is forever forgiving and accepting. The Christian faith begins right there. If you don’t have that as a basis, you won’t understand anything that follows in a fully correct way.
That’s the message we would need to start with in framing an evangelizing message for those young adults mentioned above. But it’s not just the young who need to hear the message of God’s acceptance; there are lots of older people who need to hear it as well. Sadly, that message has been there clearly and openly for all Catholics to hear for the last fifty years....but it’s not getting communicated very well. I’ve often thought that one of the greatest achievements of the Second Vatican Council was its clear affirmation that human beings are created in the image of God (G & Sp ##12-14), that bodiliness and intellect and conscience are all intrinsically good because they were created good by God (##15-16). We all have a dignity given to us by God. True, we need to struggle to live up to it, but that God-given dignity is the starting point where we need to begin.
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Readings: Lev 13:1-2,44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45
One of the things I’ve noticed during my forty-five years of priestly ministry is the large number of people who have been deeply touched by the story of Fr. Damien of Molokaii. His selfless devotion to the lepers of that Hawaiian island lifted many others to acts of devotion to people in deep need. Even if they didn’t go that far, the dedication of Fr. Damien to give himself to care for "hopeless cases" inspired real admiration in people.
Part of Fr. Damien’s mystique lay in the disease of leprosy itself. For three thousand years leprosy was a hideous scourge on human society; it was part of the dark underbelly of the human race. Lepers created an almost irrational fear in other people. To see those leprous faces with prominent features (like the nose, lips, cheeks) grotesquely disfigured and eaten away by the disease left people in deep fear for long periods of time. They avoided lepers like the plague. There have always been some individuals willing to treat lepers—to house them, clothe them and feed them (and we can justifiably count many medieval Benedictine houses in this regard), but most of society shunned lepers with a great fear. Leprosy touched the deepest anxieties inside human hearts and minds. (Since modern medical drugs have controlled leprosy since the middle of the 20th century most of us have no living memory of what a scourge and social excommunication leprosy was.)
For our purpose we just need to know that when Jesus steps forward and touches the leper who has begged him for a cure, he’s bucking what is already close to a thousand year tradition (or taboo) with that powerful fear and shunning emotion already in place. But that’s the style of Jesus’ ministry; he is so completely devoted to the sick and the needy that nothing else matters. That’s a gift which has to be sustained and renewed over and over again. We see that in the close connection between Jesus’ healing ministry and prayer. In today’s gospel there is only a veiled connection between prayer and healing, but in other gospel stories the connection is clearly shown. When Jesus heals, he prays. In a famous episode later on in the Gospel of Mark the disciples try to heal a child afflicted with demonic possession and they cannot do it. They ask Jesus about it. He tells them that this kind can only be driven out by prayer. (Mk 9:29) Prayer strengthens the healer.
That connection between healing and prayer as the strength of the healer continues to the present day. If we are going to be healers, then we desperately need the prayer that provides inner strength. I’m using the word "healing" in the broadest possible sense. Anyone who tries to assist another person in their pain and suffering is involved in "healing"—whether that involves dosing medications, changing dressings or just sitting quietly by the bedside. Any healer needs prayer for himself or herself. That’s true of all of us. The healer needs strength from beyond because what is being faced here is ultimately the fear of nothingness. We may not be immediately aware of that while sitting quietly in a hospital room, but "nothingness" is the great beast that lies just behind the curtain. Against that beast of nothingness stands the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection of Jesus centers our hope on eventual victory, on God’s love prevailing over all else. Prayer reminds us of that Resurrection. The purpose of prayer here is to unite us with Resurrection hope.
I’m sure that we all know someone (maybe it’s ourselves) who is now serving as a healer to someone else. Let’s take a moment to pray for them, to pray that above all else the Resurrection hope of Jesus will always be in their minds and hearts.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
Readings: Job 7:1-7; 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mk 1:29-39
While each of today’s readings possesses a compelling aspect to develop into a homily, I’ve chosen the gospel story of the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law. I suppose I chose that because my interest was recently piqued by a homily commentary I read that expressed how terrible it was that the mother-in-law winds up serving the guests right after she has been cured. She should be the center of the whole celebration rather than taking care of others. Of course, that homily commentary misses much about the gospel passage itself. You can’t read or interpret the story according to our own cultural presuppositions. It’s not meant to be a literal story in itself; rather it’s a story that presents an outline for catechesis. The healing of the mother-in-law, which serves as a model for how each of us is healed by Jesus’ resurrection, shows that resurrection/salvation is followed by showing our thanks through ministry and service. We have been healed and saved, yes, and our proper response is to serve God’s holy People.
In no place is that connection brought out more clearly than in the Epilogue of John’s gospel. There, after the Resurrection, Jesus says to Peter, "Do you love me?" To which Peter responds, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." And Jesus says simply, "Feed my lambs!" Two more times the same dialogue repeats itself with similar responses: "Tend my sheep," "Feed my sheep." (21:15-17) This is one aspect which has attracted the almost universal interest of scholars: why is there such a stressing of ministry and service in all the Resurrection accounts? Ordinarily that dimension shouldn’t be stressed. For such an earth-shattering event as the Resurrection, the narrative should focus on the wonder and astonishment of it all. The tendency should be to go on and on in praise of the miraculousness of this event. But the texts don’t do that. Rather they show evidence of what I mentioned earlier: they are narratives that present an outline for catechesis. The teacher is to take each of these elements and expand them into proper dimensions of Christian life.
What comes across clearly in all these accounts is the necessity of service as the proper response to the salvation we have received in Jesus’ Resurrection. That’s also the message of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. She exemplifies perfectly the Christian message: service follows Resurrection. Herein is given one of the unique aspects of Christianity as a Faith, an aspect shown in all the Resurrection accounts and mirrored in many other gospel stories afterwards. Resurrection calls forth service. Now, the one thing that essentially connects the two is that Resurrection faith itself was discovered within real acts of sharing and service.
That means that the true reality of the disciples as faithful followers of Jesus (as a community) could only be fully recaptured by imitating that process of sharing service. The full Christian faith possesses an intrinsic dynamism that it be shared. It can’t be private or individual. Christianity is a sharing, serving faith and Peter’s mother-in-law shows that perfectly.
This detour into theology and scripture research helps us better understand the dynamics of the Peter’s mother-in-law story, but it also serves as an examination of conscience for us right now.
In the perspective of this particular gospel story our very Christian faith is measured by our service to others. We all should take a hard look at ourselves and ask: what is the service that defines my Christian faith?