Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Scripture Readings: Jos. 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Eph. 5:21-32; Jn. 6:60-69.

In one of our “second nocturn” readings at vigils, St. Augustine tries to explain the legitimacy of Jacob’s stealing Isaac’s blessing from Esau by telling Isaac that he was really Esau. Non est mendacium. Hoc est mysterium. It’s not a lie, it’s a mystery, says Augustine. We are not really too convinced by this invocation of a mystery to explain what appears to be plainly untrue. We sometimes use the word mystery to point to an area that is unknown to us. The mystery of the Trinity. The mystery of time. The mystery of evil. The mystery of forgiveness and sacrifice. But we generally think of mystery as a problem or question for which we do not YET have an answer. Give us time and we will discover it. The spread of illness was once a mystery, but now we know about bacteria and infection. Once a person was described as mysteriously possessed by a demon, but now we know about neuroses and psychoses. We have moved from the unknown (mysterious) to the known.

When we are confronted with the issues of our day (mass killings, the abuse of the young and the protection of the abusers, climate change which is altering our environment), our first response is not an awe-filled bowing to higher forces. The cry is: DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Discover the causes and apply an appropriate remedy. Call in the physicians, the psychologists, the politicians. Deal with it. Don’t just shrug your shoulders.

But is it really that simple? Exposure to these explosive issues moves us more deeply than just observation and deduction. We have an instinctive or gut feeling of anxiety and insecurity. We are aware of something that eludes our analysis and conceptualization. The totality of our experience includes the incomprehensible. We apprehend a dimension of THE REAL which doesn’t admit to our attempts to categorize, domesticate, or dominate. We are confronted by an overwhelming reality which reveals hidden layers of our own self. We are overwhelmed but also included in this reality. The attempt to reduce the experience to the fragments that we can handle “objectifies” them. We feel secure in the distance we create to keep from being affected. (We can even feel comfortable in relating to God as an object, distant from the center of our lives.) What is known opens on to the unknown.

Our distance from mystery or the eclipse of mystery in our lives is the result of the window shades and shutters we have pulled down to keep from being disturbed by the light. Mystery keeps invading our lives, but we have lost the sensitivity to acknowledge it and to open our lives to its imperatives. We rather expect coherence, stability, predictability. We are masters at contracts and rubrics, at regulating the limits of potential exchange, at reducing all occasions for surprise or disturbance. Our systems of control smother out the risk of intimacy or personal meaning. A “meaningful life” is one that is successful, productive, and reaches reasonable goals. It has not been marred or blemished by failure, weakness, or a life-altering tragedy which seems to destroy all meaning. Unnoticed is the fact that our energy in maintaining these boundaries and definitions is fueled by anxiety and fear. We are touched by mystery, but have decided it is unfriendly and threatening.

If the Gospel is anything, it is the mystery of God revealing and communicating Himself to us — as mystery and as the depth of existence. Mystery doesn’t just confront us, it addresses us. It intersects with our human life and seeks to become one flesh with us. We cannot deal with it as an object, retaining our autonomy and identity. It reveals itself and at the same time reveals the mystery within us. That is why some disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. This saying is hard. Who can accept it? It is too much, too overwhelming. The Word can harden hearts in to disbelief if the journey into mystery is not accepted. We can find a world of reasons not to follow and not to be transformed in the path of discipleship. Pick your scandal. Allowing mystery its full freedom is to come to Christ, not from our own initiative, but because we are drawn by the Father. Our very choices emerge from the mystery of God within us.

The mystery of God communicates a knowledge and presence which do not always translate into understanding and clarity. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. They enliven us at a level which is deeper and more hidden than the surface events of our life. The flesh is of no avail. But they communicate a meaning and purpose which illumine and inspire the possibility for living in and from that mystery. We can be overwhelmed by the real life which expresses itself in commitment, in handing over our life, in affection and love for the other. Therefore we also will serve the Lord for he is our God. This is a knowledge and conviction that come from sharing the life that Christ offers to his Body, the Church. In this Body, in the sacraments (once called mysteries), Christ becomes one flesh with us. The flesh that alone is of no avail has now become the bearer of the revelation and mystery of God.

Karl Rahner once wrote that the devout Christian of the future will either be a “mystic”, one who has experienced something, or he will cease to be anything at all. For devout Christian living as practiced in the future will no longer be sustained and helped by the unanimous, manifest, and public convictions and religious customs of all, but by summoning each one from the outset to a personal decision …based on the experience that the basis of man’s (sic) existence is the abyss (the mystery); that God is essentially inconceivable and that his inconceivability grows the more nearly does his self-bestowing love touch us. (Theol. Investigations VII (1971) “Christian Living Formerly and Today”, p. 15). In and from this experience, we can say Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.