Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
[Scripture Readings: 2 Kgs 5:14-17; 2 Tim 2:8-13; Lk 17:11-19]
My uncle Steve, visiting New York City for the first time, was really, really turned off by repeated run-ins with rude and obnoxious New Yorkers. One afternoon, desperately in need of directions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he walked up to a man on a street corner and said to him, rather tersely — he actually said this: “Excuse me sir. Could you please give me directions to the Metropolitan Museum of art—Or would you prefer I just jumped off the Washington Bridge?”
By contrast, one of my happy memories of Rome, where I studied for three months in 2004, was the enthusiasm and expansiveness with which a typical Roman responds when you ask him directions. You ask a Roman where the Borghese Gallery is, he stops in the middle of the sidewalk, puts his arm around you, and talks for fifteen minutes;
gesticulating, commenting on the weather, the best restaurants in the neighborhood; the incompetence of the president, and the price of eggs. A Roman gives the impression of being absolutely delighted to be asked directions to anywhere.
I wonder how a Roman would respond if you stopped him on the street and asked him: “Excuse me sir, could you point me in the direction of—true freedom?” What directions might a Roman give you, if you asked him in all sincerity, how you might find your way to true freedom? I can tell you what a New Yorker would say—but, that’ll have to wait till after mass.
In this morning’s gospel, we have ten lepers; ten beloved children of God, afflicted with a terrible disease, but whom God created to be happy and free. These wretched souls are aching for freedom, they crave it as a birthright. They were made to be free.
They are determined to find and enjoy freedom, and, interestingly enough, in their pursuit of it, end up traveling in exactly opposite directions from one another. More interesting still—only one of the ten seems to be going in the right direction, that is—toward true freedom.
Going the wrong direction in pursuit of freedom is what we sometimes call: “secularism“. In Catholic discourse, “secularism” is a bad word. Nobody wants to be accused of “secularism“—and yet, secularism is a tendency in all of us—like boasting, or over-eating, or lying—the impulse to secularism seems, somehow, built in to the human condition. What is secularism? We have heard the exhortation: “Carpe Diem!” Seize the day! “Seize the day!” means: “Live—live! while you have the light of day—because very soon—you will die, and never see the light anymore.” To succumb to the temptation of secularism is to “seize the day!“—to make this day your own and enjoy this day with all the treasures it offers . . . and completely forget to thank or even acknowledge the existence of the God who created the day and gave it to you as a gift.
We can’t be too hard on the ten lepers who, miraculously cured, take off and vanish into the adventure and allurements this beautiful world suddenly made available to them. Give ’em a break, they’ve just been cured of leprosy, liberated from the stinking, humiliating banishment of a leper colony. They’ve been restored to life and to the world—it’s time to live! They desperately want to live, and they will not postpone the adventure for one more instant. Who can fault them for this?
Jesus faults them for this. Jesus appears to be genuinely surprised and dismayed, by the failure of nine out ten lepers to offer any sign of gratitude to God for their cure. “Where are the other nine?” he says—sadly. Where did everybody go? Listen to Jesus’ voice, listen to the plaintive, pitiful tone of that voice. It is the voice of the same lonely God we heard speak in the Garden after Adam and Eve fell, discovered they were naked, and hid themselves from God. Remember the sound of God’s voice, walking all alone in the empty garden at noon: “Where is everybody?”
Brothers and sisters, Life is a gift—you can seize life, possess life, and gorge yourself on life. Life is a thing. God who is the principle of all life—is a person. Life is God “ex-pressing” Himself toward us, and in us. You do not honor or please a lover by seizing a bouquet of flowers and ignoring the one who handed them to you. Even the splendor of human love, if pursued and enjoyed only for itself, becomes just another jumbo size bag of Cheetos; a cheap snack, and not really very good for you. Says St. Bernard: “Love is a great thing – so long as it returns to its source!”
We proceed now to our celebration of the Eucharist, and as faith makes these simple elements of bread and wine transparent and bright with God’s presence, let us pray that God give us eyes to see every created thing and every passing moment as pure gift, and transparent to God’s presence; an ex-pression; a “pressure” touching us from God who is Love and who like some love-sick fool longs to receive from us in return for his gifts any tiny—simple—heartfelt expression of love!