Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings: I Kgs 19:16b, 19-21; Gal  5:l, 13-18; Lk: 9: 51-62

Most efficient companies will have a job description ready for new employees.  It helps both of them to spell out what is expected, what skills for this job are necessary, what the flow chart of responsibility and authority is.  But we find that most of our significant relationships can’t be defined so simply.  While there are some boundaries and expectations, it is much harder to define what are the skills and expectations of a parent, of a spouse, of a friend, of a monk, or (more to the point) of a disciple of Christ.  While there are guidelines and parameters, the relationships are characterized by dealing with the unexpected, the mysterious, the surprising.  The “rules” set some limits, but the game is more than the rules, the map is not the territory. 

We learn from our experiences in these relationships.  We make mistakes. We need to forgive and be forgiven.  We may have to alter what we thought was at stake.  Our experiences in these relations reveal who we really are—sometimes a surprise to ourselves, for good or for ill. Life turns out to be messy and sometimes humiliating.

 Of course, we can take the option to avoid this messiness.  We can withdraw into a safe world, an enclave which affirms and supports us.  The whole techno/mechanistic paradigm in which our culture lives (cf. Laudato Si’) serves to protect us and then supply the needs it manufactures.  We may experience minor dents and glitches, but no serious damage, no long-term interruptions to the service.  We can learn to prefer the security of being “intact” and untouched, even if it does get a little boring at times.  There is no expectation that we need extend ourselves beyond the demands of our job description, no expectation that we might commit ourselves to something more than what is required.

Or we might venture into the real world of the unpredictable.  We make plans and preparations (as Jesus had his disciples do [Luke 9:52-53]), but these may not work out.  We may be rejected.  We may have our guidelines, our desire for responsibility and reliability, but we need to make room for freedom, the spontaneous, and the unexpected.  The chief skill here lies in being “in touch”, sensitive and aware of what is occurring. You can’t legislate love and spontaneity.  You were called for freedom.  The guidelines and rules only create a space in which freedom can come to expression.

The alternatives seem to be the difference between what Gerald May calls “willfulness” and “willingness.”  Willfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence.  Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself.  It is a realization that one already is part of some ultimate comic process and it is a commitment to participate in that process.  (Gerald May, Will and Spirit).  Willingness is an entry into a commitment that will probably change us more than we can manage its direction.  In fact, there is no real conversion without entry into a relationship of commitment.  Otherwise, we will squirm and wiggle our way out of any real change.

A deep relationship will often move us into that free and spontaneous desire to commit ourselves. We discover that there is something at stake which exceeds the perceived “performance” of the partners. What is most interior to ourselves comes to realization in its being shared and given away.  Elisha slaughtered his oxen and then gave it to his people to eat.  Serve one another through love.  In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis reminds us that “it is a profound law of reality that life is sustained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others.  Life grows by being given away and it weakens in isolation and comfort.”

Little surprise that commitments are not always ecstatic and fulfilling, do not always have happy endings.  They cannot be measured by the criteria of job evaluations, by observable success and satisfaction.  They are often occasions of pain, disappointment and perhaps even of betrayal.  We constantly learn through them, as much in suffering as in joy.  For freedom, Christ has set us free. So stand firm.

The impetus of commitment pervades today’s Gospel. When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. That Paschal Journey we are invited to join is an action of freedom and willingness.  Perhaps commitment is a better image of salvation and redemption than those of ransom and satisfaction for “affronts to the dignity of God.”  Christ’s life was a living out of commitment: to His Father and to us. He is Himself the New Covenant, the New Commitment.  He chose to enter into a relationship of commitment with each of us, an engagement which meant that his life would not be complete without us and that our lives would not be complete without him.  His commitment awakens the unrealized dimension of the depths of our own being.  It restores the possibility of committed living at every level.  The Eucharist we celebrate is a realization and actualization of his being taken up, as Luke says.  Taken up as a life offered to give life to others.  Taken up by the powers of indifference, rejection, hostility and transforming these powers of sin as he is taken up by the Father.  He takes them up in willingness, acceptance, freedom and love.  He was resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.  His commitment takes us up with him when we meet him with our own commitment and gift of our life.  Otherwise, we have totally missed what is happening, been spectators on the side of the road.

The three figures have approached Jesus with their own ideas of the job description for being one of his followers.  Jesus doesn’t reject them, but he does find it necessary to correct their misunderstandings.  Left uncorrected, they could become ersatz perversions of real discipleship.  The one who is ready to follow Jesus wherever you go is running on an enthusiasm which feeds on spiritual gratification, on a zeal which can turn into bitter zeal, on abstraction which has no grounding.  It is similar to seed sown on shallow ground which has no roots.  Jesus corrects him with an introduction to that poverty which binds one to the movements of creation, to the dependence of having to receive what is necessary from others.  The one who wants time to “bury his father” is preoccupied with his social role, with meeting obligations and regulations, with the dead obedience to maintaining and perpetuating social systems. The seed is sown among weeds and thorns which choke the plants with the worries and concerns of this world.  Discipleship has to go deeper than this form of concern and obedience.  The one who seems motivated by respect and familial concern has not yet understood the new belonging and relationships of the Kingdom which subordinate his loyalties to the clan and culture which formed him.  In our discipleship, Christ does not leave us alone.  His commitment to us includes his continual teaching, correcting, and weaning us from distorted forms of discipleship which keep the gift of our own commitment from coming to life.  When we are taught and guided by the Spirit, we are not under the law.  We stand firm in that freedom we receive in and through Him.



Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary time

[Scripture Readings: 2 Kgs 2;1-2, 6-14; Gal 5:1, 13-25; Lk 9;51-62 ]

It was October, 1944. Private Joel Stenson’s platoon was in Belgium preparing to advance against the Germans. They were briefed on what to expect. The captain said, “Many of you are never going home.” They wanted to turn back, but they didn’t. Remembering his wife and family, Private Stenson felt tears well up in his eyes. “Forget about home,” they said, “take care of your M-1 carbine and it will take care of you.” He was 22 years old. As the days rolled by he thought less and less about home and more and more about how to keep going in the face of death. The soldiers had set their faces toward Berlin. They had their orders, and many would die fulfilling them. After the war, Private Stenson said, “I was one of the lucky ones not to have been hit. I guess the good Lord was with me all through the war.1

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is advancing with his small company of twelve disciples on the long dusty road from upper Galilee in the North to far off Judea in the South. It was not just another journey, but a final battle. He had set his face to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. He would never go home to Nazareth or Capernaum again. The prophet Isaiah, speaking for Jesus as the suffering servant says, “The Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced; I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame (Is 50:7) . Like soldiers in time of war, Jesus had no place to lay his head, no time to bury the dead, and he did not look back or turn away. He was not trying to win an earthly kingdom by force of arms, but to open up a heavenly one by laying down his life for us, winning our hearts by his willingness to endure humiliation and crucifixion, from which he never turned back.

When Mother Teresa of Calcutta was 18 years old and leaving home to join the Loreto Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, her mother said to her, “Put your hand in [Jesus’] hand, and walk with him. Look ahead, because if you look back you will go back.” She never did, and today she’s a saint.

St. Bernadette of Lourdes once said, “How great will be the reward of those who, humble within and humiliated without, have imitated the humility of our Savior in all its fullness.” When asked what her life was like in the convent she had joined after her apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes when she was just 14, St. Bernadette said, “I am like a broom, after the sweeping is done you but it behind the door and forget about it.” She had uncovered a miraculous spring by scraping the ground with her fingers and sipping a little of the water that would cure many of their illnesses. Years later, while others were being healed in the baths at Lourdes, Bernadette suffered from rheumatism, asthma, bone infections, vomiting, spitting of blood, bone cancer and a painful tumor on her knee. Mary had asked if she would offer herself on behalf of sinners, and she did. When Bernadette was dying at age 35, she asked her friend, Nathalie, for a few sips of water and to pray a Hail Mary with her. Then, repeating the words, “poor sinner, poor sinner,” she closed her eyes on earth and opened them in heaven. Bernadette became a saint not by turning back to her past, but by setting her face toward the heavenly Jerusalem, offering all her sufferings in union with the passion and death of Jesus. Her body is still incorrupt.

Even today, the greatest miracles at Lourdes are not the physical cures, but the far more numerous and less noticeable cure of souls. On March 25, 1958, a young woman at the Grotto saw a middle aged man in obvious agony of mind and emotional distress. She was so moved by his distress that she began praying for him. Later, they were standing next to each other waiting to obtain Lourdes water. She said to him, “I noticed how distressed you were, and I have been praying for you.” The man replied, “For the last fifteen years my soul has been deeply troubled. I once committed an act of cowardice for which I can never forgive myself. During the occupation of France I failed to come forward as a witness. As a result my best friend was deported to Germany and later died in a concentration camp.” She looked intently at him and then in a trembling voice asked, “What was the name of your friend?” He told her, and with great compassion she replied, “He was my father. I know for certain that he forgave you long ago.” He was finally able to forgive himself and look ahead.2

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go up to Jerusalem. Once Fr. Pius was asked if he ever wanted to go back to Ireland which he had left behind as a young man. He reflected for a moment and then said, “No, I don’t want to go back, I want to go up.” May we also not turn back, but courageously face whatever is to come, and stand with joy before the Lord when he appears.

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 1:13-15, 2:23-24; 2 Cor 8:7-15; Mk 5:21-43]

A recent novel that is hugely popular with teen age girls, features a handsome young vampire named Edward and a young girl who falls in love with him. The girl doesn’t know Edward is a vampire, and when Edward realizes she has fallen in love with him, he is not pleased, and he doesn’t treat her very nicely. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the girl – actually, Edward is in love with her too, but, (and this is the part that thrills the teenage girls), Edward is a vampire, and if he and this girl become lovers, then, she becomes, with him, one of the living dead. Edward doesn’t want that to happen to her because he really and sincerely does love the girl. So Edward, out of true love, must renounce the great love of his life and forsake the happiness he would enjoy by possessing her. And he does renounce it — for a while. Sacrifice, for teenage girls, is something romantic but only for a while. You don’t want the sacrifice thing go on and on, or it just becomes a drag. And so, eventually, Edward and the girl make love, and with a passion that turns into something like a beating—actually, becomes so physically violent, that the handsome vampire very nearly kills the girl.

I guess, if being a little girl was like being dead, then initiating a girl into membership with the living dead, and the fate of being dead forever, would represent some kind of progress, some kind of maturation. If being a little girl was like being dead, it might help explain why, in keeping with current fashions, some teen age girls you meet, actually look a little as if they were dead. But a little girl is not dead, and you don’t help her to grow up by encouraging fantasies about being forever dead, or by teaching her that romantic love is somehow more delectable when you add a little fear and violence, as if fear and violence were like those bitter herbs they sprinkle on your fish at an especially fine restaurant. If being a little girl was like being dead, then joining the living dead she would have made some progress toward becoming a woman. But a little girl is not dead—she is asleep.

I wonder if, in light of the curious popularity of this vampire novel, Jesus might have an alternative word of life to offer us in today’s gospel, Concerning the mystery of how a little girl becomes a young woman. Regarding this mystery Jesus says two vitally important things: first, “The little girl is not dead” and, secondly, “Fear—is useless.” A little girl is not dead—she is asleep. She is sleeping the sleep of childhood, and, by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, will be awakened, awakened to life; awakened to the adventure, the risk, the responsibility of the life of a young woman.

In this process by which a little girl becomes a young woman, fear is useless. What is needed is trust. A little girl needs to learn how to trust in God, in others, and in herself. Actually, an atmosphere of trust is so indispensable for a little girl’s passage through this mystery that, in the gospel, Jesus takes with him only Peter, James, and John, men of proven faith, to witness the little girl’s awakening, and when he gets to the girl’s bedside and finds a lot of people there, panic-stricken, morose, wailing, moaning, and sobbing, he dismisses them with visible annoyance; tells all of them to get out of the room! Only people of faith are permitted by Jesus to be witnesses of a little girl’s awakening.

I know a little girl, eight years old, whose name is “Amara“. Her name means love, and, by the grace of God, when her course through this world is finished, the meaning of her life will be love. Amara is here with us at mass, and this morning, will embrace her life as a disciple of Jesus by taking Holy Communion for the very first time, and entering into a new relationship with Jesus through the sacrament of his body and blood. It is Jesus himself, the living Lord, who approaches Amara this morning. We who are present here have been invited by Jesus to be witnesses to Amara’s awakening; her call to discipleship, and to a new stage in the process of her becoming a young woman. Fear, at this moment, is useless, what is needed is trust, on the part of every one of us present here this morning. Jesus will have it no other way. If there are any poets of Gothic gloom and doom, any cynics, or nihilists present here this morning, you can wait outside until we are finished. What is needed now is trust. Fr. Tom McMaster who is Amara’s godfather; who has loved and encouraged her for six years, will administer to her the cup of Jesus’ blood. Her parents and siblings will also witness to her with their love and faith, and the rest of us will stand witness and pray for Amara who this morning begins to shake off the sleep of childhood, and awaken to a new relationship with Jesus, who if you listen with the ears of faith, you will hear say to Amara at communion time: “Little girl—arise!”

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21; Gal 5:1, 13-18; Lk. 9:51-62]

If Jesus Christ himself left behind the peace and solitude of the desert and committed himself to active ministry in the world: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and comforting the sorrowful, can monks justify doing less than that?” With these words, a guest speaker recently concluded a lecture given to our community. Her words, though disconcerting, were not a complete surprise to us. We monks have heard people talk to us like this before. Actually, in the Catholic Church of North America these days, it is not uncommon to hear the life of cloistered contemplative of monks critiqued, as being self-centered, ineffectual, an exercise in pious idealism; perhaps not even a valid form of Christian witness. This critique can come even from within American monastic culture itself. In a book recently published entitled: “A Monastic Vision for the Future: Where do we go from Here?” Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, describes contemplation as an energy that drives us out of ourselves into the mind of God and from there out into the world waiting for God’s Word. It was true contemplatives, she goes on to say, and who saved Europe from the Dark Ages. It was contemplatives who restored peace and order to Medieval society, ministered to the sick on the side of the road, to poor people in the fields; to the illiterate in the streets; the oppressed in the cities; and the unemployed in villages. Are the monks of New Melleray Abbey then failing in fidelity to the gospel of Christ by living a strictly cloistered contemplative lifestyle?

In light of these questions, today’s gospel it seems to me is vitally important. Jesus, said to be the model of those who “go out” into the world to serve, is, in this gospel, going out. He is, actually, going out for the very last time. Every missionary journey he has ever undertaken in his life was an only dress rehearsal for the mission he is commencing now, which will be the culmination of his active ministry on earth. It is of the greatest importance then for us to look and see where Jesus is going in this gospel, and the reader may find himself a little surprised and disconcerted to discover that Jesus—is going nowhere.

Jesus is going to Jerusalem. Now, we know Jesus, is not welcome in Jerusalem. There are people there who hate Jesus; hate him enough to kill him. Now if he were commanding an army we might see this undertaking as an act of desperate courage. But Jesus doesn’t have an army; he doesn’t even have a uniform. He is marching straight into the hands of powerful enemies accompanied by a band of fishermen and wearing a tunic and sandals. We have read the gospels and we know how this venture is going to end. Jesus is going nowhere and when he gets there—he’s going to die. One would think in light of Sr. Joan’s vision of a Christian vocation, Jesus as a young man would be just on the threshold of a marvelous career in the active ministry. What lesson then are we to draw from the evident failure of this ministry ending with this death.

I wonder if Joan Chittister’s exuberant confidence in the effectiveness of action in the world is not something rather distinctive to us North American Catholics—even monk and nuns. The story is told that Dom Fredrick Dunne, the fabled abbot of Gethsemani Abbey used to say to his monks: “Remember what you are called—an ‘American!’ and the last two syllables of ‘American’ are: “I can!” Inspiring as this call to action is, what it fails to acknowledge is the fact that Jesus, the Son of God, failed to save the world through teaching, preaching, healing and protest . . . and the salvation he failed to accomplish by active intervention in the world, he finally secured for us only in humiliation, defeat, and the silence of suffering love, and in so doing, set an example for most of us who, in old age, come to realize all our grand accomplishments have failed to sanctify us as effectively as loneliness, failure and illness do. More poignantly, how many of us having said to ourselves for a whole lifetime: “I can.” will confess mournfully with our dying breath: “I could have—yes . . . it’s true. I really could have—but, I didn’t.”

Is the kingdom of God to be established by active intervention in the affairs of the world? What active ministry is Jesus modeling for us with both his hands and feet nailed to a cross? Is it the Order of Preachers do you suppose whose ministry he is modeling as he stands before Pilate speechless? Is it the Catholic Worker Movement Jesus anticipates as he agonizes all alone in the garden, begging his heavenly Father for his life? Are social activists who promote human dignity to take their cue from Jesus as he stands mute and permits himself to be stripped naked in full view of a hostile crowd?

Is the world to be saved and the kingdom of God established by active intervention in the world? Jesus tried to save the world this way – and failed. And Jesus was God. If active ministry in the world is where all our hope of salvation lies . . . Why should God have had such a brief ineffectual ministry culminating in our salvation accomplished in the silence of suffering love? Does God know something about saving the world that we don’t?

Thirteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 1:13-15; 2:23-24; 2 Cor 8:7,9,13-15; Mk 5:21-43 (21-24, 35b-43)]

The first thing I do when I go down in preparation for personal prayers at the church before the Vigils is to pass by the community board and browse through the notices posted on it. There are news and notices for the day. The items I pay most attention to are the requests for prayers. They come from all over, from everyone, by mail or phone messages, and almost about everything. There are requests for a successful garage sale, a pleasant day for outing and vacation, a favorable decision on a court case, or a child that is reported missing for a day or two. There are prayers for stable employment and wise discernment in the choice of partner in life or a vocation. Most prayers concern the appeal for good health, reconciled relationships, or recovery from illness after a delicate surgical operation. Others simply refer to their “particular intentions“. Brother John is quite diligent in downloading the phone messages and posts them for inclusion in the community prayers. There is a regular “prayer client” who mentions various intentions from the neighborhood and her relatives. One time, in her list, she mentioned the need for prayers for a distant relative who was seriously ill. The following day, she left the message that the intentions were similar to the previous day and added, “No need to pray for so and so. He is already dead.

We Catholics pray for both the living and the dead, be they spiritually or physically dead. We pray for our departed ones. This is the reason for our Funeral Masses, Masses for the dead, or prayers for the souls in purgatory. In that incident on the no-prayer-for-the-dead, there is something revealing in our common thought, which is likewise seen in today’s gospel. There is Jairus, a Jewish official of a synagogue who does not hesitate to pray to Jesus for his daughter’s healing who was at the point of death (Mk 5:23). At once, Jesus was coming to his house to lay his hands in prayer on the girl. However, upon arriving, the people told him not to bother the teacher any longer. “Your daughter has died“, they said (5:35). Jesus could have just left and attended to others. Instead, disregarding the reported message, he told the father, “Do not be afraid; just have faith(5:36). He continued to express his faith in Jesus. Consequently, his daughter was raised back to life by Jesus. A miracle has happened to the astonishment of the people. Jesus made it happen with the faith of the Jairus. An intervening incident also showed the importance of faith in Jesus for the healing from illness. A woman who was sick of hemorrhage for twelve years took the chance of coming close to Jesus. Her intention was personal as she did not have the opportunity to air out her appeal. However, she believed that even if she could but touch his cloak, it would be enough for her cure. She did touch Jesus’ cloak and she got healed. Upon discovering what she did, Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.(5:34).

God’s word for us in this Sunday’s liturgy and for our meditation this week helps us to examine certain aspects of our faith-relationship with the Lord.

The first point we could reflect upon is that the way to healing in Jesus is through faith in him. We express that faith in our prayers. The woman need not express it out loud but a mere touch on Jesus’ cloak enabled her cure after 12 years of bodily afflictions. Jesus tells her outright, “Daughter, your faith has saved you.” The father was not discouraged to keep believing and hoping against hope even with the death of his daughter that his prayers would be answered. To the realistic but discouraging remarks of the people on the girl’s unfortunate condition, Jesus inspires him still, “Do not be afraid; just have faith.” Even in human relationship, it is in our trustful confidence and friendship that our requests for favors are easily granted. In our relationship with God, faith paves the way for healing. In the gospel we saw that even death was overcome when the girl was brought back to life because of faith.

Secondly, it is good to look at death again from the perspective of Christian faith. Some of us could relate concrete stories of extraordinary healings even at the point of dying. Most of us know that although our ailing brother or sister did not recover and now rests in peace, we still believe in the Lord. What does this mean then? The book of Wisdom gives some clues on the mystery of death. In our reading, we hear that God’s first and ultimate desire for us is life. “God did not make death nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living,” says the author of Wisdom (Wis 1:13). Now if we see and experience death all around us, the culprit is the devil. The author tells us, “God formed man to be imperishable…in his image. But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and those who are in his possession experience it(Wis 2:23-24). It is not that God created us to be immortal like Him. We are mortal, as we can die anytime. In Wisdom, two kinds of death are referred to. There is the physical death and the spiritual death. We experience the physical death at the end of our lease of life. However, we may still be physically alive, but we may already undergo spiritual death. Through the resurrection of Jesus, we know and believe that beyond physical death, there is eternal life with God by our faith in Christ. Yet what the devil aims at in this life is our spiritual death, our separation from God while we are still alive. It is the more dangerous death that we can experience and must guard ourselves against. It is in this death of our spirit that the devil wants to possess us. With bodily ailments, both kinds of death are possible. We may die if the illness turns deadly serious. But we could also be spiritually dead as we begin to despair and distrust the Lord and refuse His offer of greater life. Illness can turn us away from God by being possessed by the devil. But it can also lead to greater faith in the Lord. The faith of Jairus led to new life for his child. The woman’s faith led to her renewed and integrated life such that she could praise and serve God all the more. They serve as our models of living in faith.

Lastly, the two stories in the gospel are beautifully interwoven as in a literary fabric. This is another “sandwich” literary device in Mark. The Jairus episode serves as the two pieces of bread enclosing the “meat” or the episode on the woman’s healing. Both make up the sandwich and complement one another. In the literary timeline, it shows that while Jesus attends to the cure of one, another is already being healed. In our life at this moment, one may just be appealing for healing, while the one next to us may already be expressing the gratitude for a favor granted. These are all signs of life in the Lord. To me, Jesus is saying, “Fear not; just have faith.” To you, He says, “Your faith has saved you.” At whichever point of life’s spectrum we are now, the Lord calls us together in this assembly and we express both our petitions and our thanksgiving to God.