Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 49:14-15; 1 Cor 4:1-5; Mt 6:24-34 ]
Monastic ethics are to ethics as monastic music is to music. That is one of the first conclusions I drew early in my formation. Ethics is our sense of right and wrong. It was in distinguishing secular ethics from monastic ethics that I learned that no one can serve two masters.
In the secular world I came from, ethics were practical; they were about control and getting along with each other. Love was portrayed in movies and music as two people looking at each other.
In the monastery ethics are meaningful; they are about seeking union with God. Love is about all of us looking at the same thing; we are centered on Christ. Of course, this is true of Christian ethics in general.
How do we make the transition from one to the other? I think today's gospel tells us that. It is Matthew's version of the “One Thing necessary.”
Jesus tells us, “Do not worry … your Heavenly Father knows what you need.” His emphasis is on how much the Father loves us. “How much” can only be guessed from looking at the care He gives to things of nature; are not we, made in His image, of more value than flowers and birds?
Well, we're either not sure we are or not sure that it matters. We seem to have more pressing concerns than the love of God.
And that is the problem Jesus is pointing out about all these worries: they pre-occupy the heart with thoughts of self. The heart is set on controlling events to our own satisfaction. The heart is made to be given entirely to God. To do that, Jesus tells us, we must live in the present moment.
Faith, like the other theological virtues of hope and love, comes from the heart. Faith is what Jesus is talking about today. Worry about tomorrow is the work of reason and the senses. The life of faith consists entirely in this on-going battle with reason and the senses. Jean-Pierre de Caussade states this very beautifully: “If all that happens to a soul abandoned to God is all that is necessary for it, then we can understand that nothing can be wanting to it, and that it should never pity itself, for this would be a want of faith and living according to reason and the senses which are never satisfied, as they cannot perceive the sufficiency of grace.” 1
So how do we make the transition from living by the ethics of the world to monastic ethics? It is done by a decision to place our faith in one or the other. And Jesus directs that decision: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” Making that decision requires wisdom. Wisdom makes distinctions and its chief distinction is between what is temporary and subject to change and what is enduring, in fact, eternal. Wisdom applies to the eternal. It tells us that what matters most has enduring value.
So today Jesus is calling His followers not only to wisdom, but to maturity. Christian maturity is the capacity to reflect upon and distinguish between inner spiritual movements toward what is of enduring value, toward what matters most. It is the ability to recognize and respond to who it is that is calling us.
In today's gospel Christ call us to maturity by developing a discerning heart. He tells us it is not worry about food and clothing, but the things to which we devote ourselves for their own sake that will form us in the security of His likeness. When we do this, we gradually stop resisting the demands of love. We seek first the kingdom of God and that kingdom is the place where what matters most is doing the Father's will.
Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Is 49:14-15; 1 Cor 4:1-5; Mt 6:24-34]
Fr. Raymond Brown tells the story of a Buddhist monk who was curious about Christianity. He asked a missionary for information. The priest gave him a copy of the New Testament, suggesting that he read the Gospel of St. John and then come back. But he didn’t come back.
Two months later they just happened to meet again. The missionary asked the monk if he had read the Gospel. The Buddhist said he couldn’t get beyond the first line, “In the beginning was the Word.” It puzzled and annoyed him. He asked, “Why didn’t John write, ‘In the beginning there was silence’? You Christians have such a noisy God.”1
Yes, in a way we do have a noisy God, a God who spoke to us through the prophets, and then through his Son, the Eternal Word who became flesh so that we could see him with our own eyes, and hear God’s Word with our own ears. The first great discourse of Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount, our introduction to Christianity.
Fr. Raphael Simon, a Trappist monk of Spencer Abbey, who died four years ago, wrote about the influence the Gospel had on him in his search for God. He was born of Jewish parents in New York City, in 1909. After becoming a psychiatrist and struggling with his Jewish faith, he was troubled by what seemed to be an unaccountable gap between the God of his fathers who spoke to the ancient prophets, and the apparent silence of God ever since, who seems to be so strangely distant.
One day, when he felt harassed and terribly fatigued, he was stirred with curiosity about Christianity and wanted to know more. He got hold of a New Testament and happened upon the Sermon on the Mount. He read these words from today’s Gospel: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. … Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt. 6:25f). He felt an overwhelming sense of peace flow into his heart.
He decided to read a portion of the Gospels every day. Previously, the name of Jesus only stirred up thoughts of resentment. But now he was determined to read with an open mind. Beginning with Matthew he read the four Gospels. By the time he reached chapter 20 in St. John’s Gospel, at the scene in the upper room where Christ passes through closed doors, and Thomas the Apostle cries out, “My Lord and my God,” a great change took place in Dr. Simon’s own heart. He writes, “I realized that I believed, and that the loving Savior had passed through the locked doors of my heart. … My eyes and ears were opened and my heart melted as I discovered the lovableness of Jesus. He is indeed the Son of God.” 2 God was not being silent after all. Dr. Simon was baptized in 1936 and entered the Trappist Abbey in Rhode Island four years later, taking the name Raphael.3
Yes, we have a noisy God. He not only speaks his Word to us, but God is like a mother who embraces her child in her arms. God has drawn very near to us in the Person of His Son. St. John writes “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life, … so that you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 Jn 1:1-3).
God cries out from the crib to the cross: “Do not worry … Look at the birds in the sky … Are you not more important than they? … Seek first the kingdom of God … and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt. 6:33).
Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: Hos 2:16-17, 21-22; 2 Cor 3:1-6; Mk 2:18-22]
Among Jesuits, they say a good liturgy is one in which no one gets hurt! It happened one time that a young, newly appointed rabbi was dismayed to find serious divisions and quarrels in his synagogue. During Friday evening services half of the people would stand while the other half would sit. All semblance of decency and decorum was lost one day when they shouted at each other to follow their way of praying. Members of each side insisted theirs was the correct tradition. The young rabbi decided to seek guidance. He took a representative from each side for a hospital visit to the ailing eighty year old rabbi who was founder of that synagogue. One side said, “Rabbi, isn’t it true that our tradition is always to stand at this point in the service?” The wise old man replied, “No, that is not the tradition.” The other side began gloating and said, “See, we are right, the tradition is to be seated.” The venerable rabbi replied again, “No, that isn’t the tradition either.” At this the young rabbi cried out, “How can this be? What we have now is complete chaos. Half the people stand and shout while the other half sits and screams.” “Aha,” exclaimed the elder, “that is the tradition!”1
Conflicts! Some of the earliest stories of Jesus are about conflicts over traditions. Disciples of the Pharisees were on a neighborhood watch, and Jesus was at the center of their attention. They watched and were appalled when he invited tax collectors and sinners to a meal in his house. Talking behind his back they criticized Jesus, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus heard their complaints and his reply seemed complimentary, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” They knew they were righteous. But they were not so sure about Jesus.
Their neighborhood watch continued. Will Jesus have a good influence on sinners or will sinners corrupt Jesus? Soon they had an answer. Jesus and his disciples were not fasting according to custom. Even though the Law only required one fast day a year-on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, common piety and devotion went beyond minimum observance by fasting twice a week. So people confronted Jesus face to face. “The disciples of John and the Pharisees fast but yours don’t. How come?” Jesus replied, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? …. Is new cloth sewn on an old cloak? …. Is new wine put in old wineskins?” This time he offers them no compliments. He compares them to stiff dried out wineskins; to torn worn out cloaks; to outsiders who were missing the happiest of life’s events, a wedding feast. This is amazing! Jesus is revealing in an oblique way “the most intimate secret of his Heart,”2 his identity as our Bridegroom. He is our divine Lover whose journey will lead him through death and resurrection to an eternal wedding feast with his bride. Here, tucked away in a short conflict story in Mark’s Gospel we discover that our great destiny is to be God’s bride.
This revelation went right over their heads. That often happens in conflicts when we don’t listen to what someone is saying. Like the day an attorney questioned a medical examiner who was on the witness stand. The defense attorney said, “Doctor, do you remember at what time you examined the body?” The doctor replied: “The autopsy started around 8:30 p.m.” “And was the man dead at the time?” Amused the doctor said, “No, he was sitting on the table wondering why I was doing an autopsy.” Frowning, the attorney continued, “Doctor, before you performed the autopsy, did you check for a pulse?” “No.” “Did you check for blood pressure? “No.” “Did you check for breathing?” “No.” “So, you didn’t check for these common signs of life. Isn’t it possible that the patient was still alive when you began the autopsy?” “No.” “Doctor, how can you be so sure?” He replied, “Because his brain was sitting in a jar on my desk.” The attorney continued, “But couldn’t the patient have had some life in him?” “Yes,” the medical examiner said, “it is possible he could have been alive and practicing law somewhere.” In our conflicted hearts and lives do we miss what God is trying to tell us, that we are his bride, that he wants our hearts and our love?
Yahweh spoke plainly to the prophet Hosea, revealing that he felt like a jilted Lover abandoned by a prostitute wife who acted like a swift she-camel running here and there, or like a wild donkey sniffing the wind in her heat with unrestrained craving.
The story of Jesus is a love story. He is the Bridegroom pursuing his wayward bride. He would have us strip off our torn, soiled garments so that he can wash us clean and clothed our nakedness with himself. He wants us to discard our sour wine and cracked wineskins so that the outpouring of his blood on the cross can fill our hearts with the new wine of his divinity. Encountering Jesus means encountering our Lover who will wipe away every tear from our eyes and bring us to a new heaven and an new earth where death shall be no more, where there will be rejoicing and happiness when our wedding night with God begins.
Baptism is our wedding with God. But like a wartime wedding, after which the young husband has to leave immediately for combat on the front lines, Jesus, our Bridegroom, was taken away to combat on the cross. We suffer from his absence, he is hidden from our sight. We long to see his face and be embraced. This is not a time to run about like a she-camel or wild donkey in heat, intent only on our own pleasures. Rather, it is a time to willingly join in his sufferings, to fast from what is evil so that when our wedding night comes he will receive us into the intimacy of God’s home, to enjoy the sweet, warm companionship of his love.
This Lent, let us put off the torn garments of contentiousness and cast aside the cracked wineskins of conflicts. Let us fast from whatever separates us from the Lord and experience what it means to be hungry for God.