Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Neh 8: 2-4a, 5-6,8-10; l Cor 12: 12-30; Lk 1: l-4, 4:14-21.
You just don’t understand me! How many times has that statement ended a conversation? We are just not connecting at a fundamental level. You live in another world. There is no point in talking to you. I remember using this as a defensive measure when I was a child. I was a clever little brat. The implication is that my part of the communication is clear. The failure lies on your side.
It is true that real understanding requires something more than just hearing the words. Google can translate the words, but miss the whole meaning. Sometimes an effort to bring one’s own experience, memory, and imagination into the exchange is required. It is the practice of empathy, of stepping out of our own perspective and passing over into that of the other person. It is the ascesis of listening, of suspending our own interpretations and waiting in silence for the unknown, for the surprising, for the disturbing. It is the ascesis of understanding. Many people enter into counselling or therapy for the sake of understanding themselves and being understood by another person. One of the great needs of the human soul is to be understood.
A drumbeat in the first reading from Nehemiah is the word understand. It was the assembly of all those who could understand. Ezra read plainly and interpreted the reading so that all could understand what was read. The reading of the word would not be complete, not be fulfilled, unless it was understood. An old dictum I was once taught remains true: Communication is in the listener. You may be eloquently articulate, but if it is not understood it has missed its objective.
All the people listened attentively to the book of the law. They gave themselves to listening and understanding. They weren’t simply in attendance. Just there to fulfill some social obligation. We can be in attendance at a play, a ball game, or any performance without committing ourselves in any serious way. We are there as observers, an audience. To be attentive is to give ourselves, to turn the face of our being to the one asking our attention, our presence. This is anything but automatic since we reserve our involvement to what will enhance our well-being. We maintain a critical distance. We don’t know what will be asked of us.
The cost of real understanding is this undivided and unprotected attention that opens our self to a communication that can change the way we construe reality and the way we are now called to respond. Easier to abort this whole process before we leave safe harbor. I don’t understand what you are talking about. You don’t understand me. Lurking underneath the words is the mystery that struggles to reveal itself. How much there is that we don’t know and yet are asked to move with courage and hope on a dark path. We are a mystery to ourselves. We are called to travel to the depths of our own mystery, where we are met by the sacred and the transcendent already dwelling there. This is the fullness of God, His Word fulfilled in your hearing. It is being anointed by the Spirit.
The eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Scripture can be read and listened to, but it is not fulfilled until it is heard by the whole person, until it is understood. To be evangelized means that the gospel is good news for our poverty, for our need to be understood and accepted, for our capacity to be empty and limited enough to receive and to be ready to share all that we have. The gospel is not good news for those who identify themselves with what they possess and the choices available to them in glorious independence. The gospel gives sight to those who dare to look into the depths of mystery hidden before their eyes. It gives liberation to live one’s own life to those oppressed by fears and unlived potentials of expression. It frees those held captive by systems which close one off from being in touch with the transcendent spirit that breaks out in hope, joy, trust, and a thirst for an infinite horizon to life.
The Gospel is Jesus Christ present with us, seeking that fulfillment that our understanding and transformation can create. The Gospel is fulfilled in our hearing, in our understanding and being understood in the communion and power of the Holy Spirit. Look toward the Lord and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed (Communion Antiphon). Rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Jon 3:1-5, 10; I Cor 7: 29-31; Mk 1: 14-20.
You’ll do it because I said so. When was the last time we heard that? Maybe when we were children and lost another argument with our parents. Or maybe from an employer or a military commander. Only someone who represents an order or world-view with teeth can effectively give that kind of command. It’s in-or-out. We can stay in, and perform mechanically, reluctantly, or resentfully. But this is bare compliance, not consent or agreement.
We have moved into the therapeutic age and the age of collaboration. Leaders have to convince us, “sell” their vision, be open to our advice and consultation. While it slows things down, we can examine the reasons and consequences for what we are being asked to do. Its effect on our own well-being and development is integral to the whole process.
In his Rule, Benedict comes down pretty solidly in favor of a strongly directive authority. You can consult, but the final decision is the abbot’s. You can object to impossible tasks, but the bottom line is that you obey what the abbot determines. The whole spiritual formation is based on the practices of humility and obedience. Benedict is well aware of forms of pseudo-obedience. Compliance, he says, should not be cringing, sluggish, half-hearted. It should be free from grumbling, not grudging, and given gladly, with eagerness for the narrow way. How to engender and insure the latter attitudes? He first wants to test the spirits, not grant a newcomer an easy entrance, and give due time for reflection and discernment. He and his own teacher, Cassian, want to be sure that the novice really desires this way of life, is in touch with a fundamental option in his life. He must aspire to the ultimate goal of his life with all his being and renounce all that is not necessary to it.
All this makes Jesus’ encounter with his first disciples a little surprising. It is immediate and abrupt. We think that Mark is just condensing a lot of material and has deleted relevant information. They must have met before and become acquainted. Jesus probably did some background checks on them before selecting them. We want to fill in what is missing. But perhaps the lack of explanation is meant to express just that: there is no explanation. The encounter with the Word of God creates an entirely new time and space (the Kingdom of God). It is too real to be “effable”, to be contained in explanations or causes. The only cause is God’s desire to create a relationship and communion which will awaken a whole new sensitivity (faith) in the human person he calls. The call is an instant of God’s insistence. It is the intrusion of eternity into time and history, so that history now becomes the bearer and sacrament of eternal care. The Kingdom of God is at hand. How do we know it? Because God has told us. It is a call that we hear always in the present. It is not bound by the limitations of our time and space, our kingdom. A call is not a certificate or status embellishment. It is a living relationship in which mutual presence is created in the word uttered and the hearing. Almost at the same moment as the master gives instruction the disciple quickly puts it into practice in the fear of God; and both actions together are swiftly completed as one (Rule, Chapter 5). We can only know the experience from within and know that it has no other explanation than the unity now created between God and humanity. Faith is performative. We know it in doing it, in doing it because I told you.
The original text of Mark seemed to some to have been truncated and cut short, without any appearances of the Risen Lord. But this seems very consistent with his creative option to leave an empty space, an empty tomb in which the Word and Spirit of God can become alive and bear in themselves all the explanations and appearances that are needed. Repent and believe. In believing, you will repent of all that is not necessary to living in the Kingdom.