Sunday, July 31, 2011

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 55:1-3 / Romans 8:35, 37-39 / Matthew 14:13-21 

Faduma Sakow Abdullahi and her five children tried to escape starvation in Somalia by journeying to a Kenyan refugee camp. Only one day before they reached their destination, her 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son died of exhaustion and hunger. At first the 29-year-old widow thought the two were merely sleeping when they wouldn’t get up after a brief rest. She had to leave their bodies under a tree, unburied, so she could push on with her baby, 2-year-old and 3-year-old. … On her way to Dadaab, Abdullahi said she walked with friends for three days before she and her children lagged behind. She saw around 20 children dead or unconscious abandoned on the roadside. “I saw two elderly people on the road,” she said. “They cried out, ‘Ma’am, give us a helping hand.’ They wanted to sweet-talk me, but I said to them ‘I can’t help’ and moved on. You will feel kind only when you have something, … I wanted to give the little water I had to my children.” 
This account was written a few weeks ago for the Associated Press in coverage of the drought and famine in East Africa, where the worst drought that region has endured in 60 years has brought over 12 million people at risk of malnutrition and starvation. Dadaab, the refugee camp in Kenya to which this mother made her tragic, 37-day-long trek for assistance, is now the largest refugee camp in the world, designed for 90,000 persons, and now housing over 440,000 refugees, with more arriving every day, most from the over 800,000 who have fled from Somalia. Food prices in the region have soared, from up nearly 60% in Kenya to up 250% in Somalia.  You will feel kind, she said, only when you have something. While the scale was different, Jesus in today’s Gospel also confronts crowds, those who followed him on foot from their towns to the deserted place to which he had withdrawn to be by himself. Jesus, no doubt troubled by the death of his cousin John the Baptist, not merely losing someone he loved, but also reminding him of the pain, suffering, and death it was his mission to endure, might easily have been only all the more burdened at the sight of the crowds, afflicted with illness of countless kinds. However, our Lord did not flinch or feel sorry for himself.  When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, the Gospel tells us, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. In the face of such need, we can easily become overwhelmed. Whether the global scale of the famine in the Horn of Africa, the regional scale of the several towns who brought their sick to Jesus, or the personal scale of a panhandler on the streets or an appeal sent to us through the mail, we do not know what we can do. We do not know how our few resources, so little in the face of such hunger and thirst, will ever do anything other than impoverish ourselves, and add no more than a drop into an impossibly large bucket. Better to send such requests away, we say to ourselves, and hope for the best. This is a deserted place and it is already late, said the disciples. Dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.  I wanted to give the little water I had to my children, said the Somali widow. Opposed to this bleak vision stand the bright promises of the Lord, promises of drink for the thirsty, of grain to eat, wine and milk to drink, without paying and without cost. Where we see a mounting and insoluble humanitarian crisis, God Almighty speaks through the prophet Isaiah of eating well and not merely surviving, but of delighting in rich fare. Through his apostle Paul he assures us that no earthly calamity nor demonic force, no anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, the same Lord Jesus who, seeking time to be alone by himself, nonetheless found his heart was moved with pity for them. This same Lord Jesus who did not merely show pity, but fed the crowds — they all ate and were satisfied — with an abundance still remaining. There is no need for them to go away, Jesus said to his disciples, give them some food yourselves. The Gospel today challenges us to show to ourselves, to one another, and to the world, where we truly have placed our hope. When we hear the promises from Isaiah of abundant and rich food and drink without cost, when we hear St Paul assure us that the worldly and spiritual powers arrayed against us cannot and will not prevail, when we hear of Jesus’ merciful heart and the miraculous feeding of the crowds, and when we receive him today in the Blessed Sacrament, do we believe that God can and will make good on all he has promised? Can we cease to spend our money for what is not bread; our wages for what fails to satisfy — whether political programs, frivolous or seductive pasttimes, or strange philosophies promising enlightenment? Are we ready to give the little that we have, our five loaves and two fish into the hands of the Lord Jesus, confident that he will make good on whatever we present to him, and abundantly so? Brothers and sisters, Jesus did not expect the disciples to feed the crowds by their own resources. St Paul did not promise that our victory in Christ means the end here and now of distress from physical or spiritual evil through our own efforts. God’s promise of abundance in food and drink through his prophet Isaiah did not suggest that our ingenuity would solve and meet every human need. It is God, and God alone, who is the food that satisfies, and therefore it is God, and God alone, who can provide what we so desperately need. What then are we to do? How do we respond to the world’s craving, its hunger and thirst? We are meant to do precisely what Jesus asked of his disciples: Give them some food yourselves. While we must do our best to give wisely, to be prudent in our charity, human limitation and our own inability to satisfy the world’s hungers is no excuse not to feed others as we are able. We are to give, and give generously, of our money, yes, but also of our time, our kindness, the pity in our hearts, and most of all our prayers to God. We need not worry that it will not be enough. That is for God to do. Instead, we are to cultivate the same love in our hearts as Jesus showed the crowds and not to be stingy with our five loaves and two fish. It may be all we have here, but in Jesus Christ, our little is more than enough to satisfy the desires of a hungry world.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

1 Kings 3:5, 7-12 / Romans 8:28-30 / Matthew 13:44-52

Sometimes we need to know that all is not as it appears in order to make the right response to the world around us. Unless we can see the real significance of things, we are likely to find ourselves confused and frustrated, perhaps even horrified, by the choices we or others make. We have all no doubt seen the trick in which a magician saws his pretty assistant in half, only to find her, at the end of the trick, healthy and whole. At first glance, the calm of the magician, the delight of the audience, and even more the gleeful willingness of the assistant defy comprehension. After all, we have been shown that the blades to be used are quite solid and sharp, the box to all appearances secure. If we did not know any better, if the magician and his assistant did not know that this was merely an illusion, if the audience, even when ignorant of the mechanics of the trick, were not equally certain that what they seemed to see was not really the case, then it would be hard to explain, much less justify, a young woman willingly permitting herself to be dismembered for the entertainment of an audience. It is only from inside the experience of those involved, only because everyone — the magician, the assistant, and the audience — knows this to be an illusion, that all is not as it appears to be, that they can look on not with horror, but with pleasure and delight.

For those of us who have lived a long time in the faith, perhaps from infancy, or perhaps for many years after being baptized or received into the Church later in life, it can be easy to forget how strange the life of the Gospel seems to those not yet conformed to the image of the Son of God. For some of us, the strangeness is dramatic — professing vows of obedience and living out the evangelical counsels without a family of our own for the love of God and the proclamation of the Good News. For others, the strangeness is perhaps less public and dramatic, but no less off-putting to the world. Whether something as simple as abstaining from meat on Fridays, giving up a lazy Sunday morning in bed to get dressed and go to church, taking time in the middle of the day to read the Bible or pray the rosary, or something more painful and difficult, like carrying an unplanned pregnancy to term even when another child will stretch an already stretched budget, or passing up a promotion which would have involved common and widespread but no less objectionable moral compromises, or choosing to bear insults on the playground or the lunchroom rather than return them with some of our own, living the life of the Gospel does not, on the face of it, make a great deal of sense. It is not that being kind, even occasionally heroically so, is hard to understand — atheists and agnostics can and have done as much. Rather, it is our willingness to give up what may seem to many to be the best pleasures the world has to offer, to make sacrifices our neighbors cannot understand or even see as reasonable — this is what makes the Gospel unavoidably strange.

Of course, this should come as no surprise. Jesus Christ, in his parables of the Kingdom, has already told us as much. By any reasonable calculation, selling all you have to buy a field, staking all one's business and fortune on a single pearl, are not simply risky choices, they are irrational and self-destructive. What would we say, after all, of a man who risked his own livelihood, and the security of his family and all his employees, on a single purchase, a single object which, to any passerby, had nothing special about it? However, we know, as do he men in the parables, that the field conceals a treasure, that the pearl is not ordinary, but priceless. From their perspective, what they did was not risky at all. Their other possessions were, in comparison, worthless, nothing compared to the treasure in the field or the pearl of great price. They had nothing to risk and everything to gain, no fear of loss and unshakeable assurance of immeasurable profit. Like the magician and his assistant, they know there is no danger involved, and nothing to lose, however foolish and self-destructive it might appear to anyone who was not in the know.

This is why the gift of wisdom is so important in the Christian life. We are called, after all, to a life of immeasurable value, called to the kingdom of heaven, called to be conformed to the image of the Son of God. That predestination and calling, however, are sometimes hard to see. They include suffering and hardship, pain and loss, being misunderstood and being struck down not merely by enemies, but by those we counted as friends as well. That it, they involve being conformed not only to the Resurrection and Glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ, but to his Passion and Death as well. This call and predestination also means sharing a life in the Church, in the great haul of fish, with both saints and sinners, with those who live in accord with the Gospel and with those who will cause scandal and sorrow both within the Church and in the sight of those all too happy to discredit the faith. In the face of all of this, we need not merely courage to endure hardship, but the wisdom to see with St Paul that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. We need not blind obedience, but like Solomon we need the desire for an understanding heart ... to distinguish right from wrong.

But how are we to gain this wisdom? How do we see the treasure in the field or recognize the pearl of great price? There is no technique, no class, no training or exercise we can do. The wisdom we seek is not of that sort. Rather, the wisdom we seek comes from above, from our lively and sustained relationship with the Father through his Son Jesus Christ and the friendship of the Holy Spirit. It is in our daily moments of intimacy with God dwelling within our hearts — in small acts of charity with our neighbor, in daily reading of the Scriptures, in taking time for quiet and prayer, learning to silence our own expectations and be in stillness with the Lord — this is how we cultivate true wisdom. In the end, wisdom is not like knowing a magician's trick. It is the insight we gain from loving, from daily listening to him whom he love and who loves us in return, finding that, in time, we have learned to see the world not only with our own eyes, but also with the eyes of our divine Lover. It is through love, through communion with the Trinity in faith and charity, that we will see the world as it really is. It is in wisdom arising from love that the strangeness of the Gospel will pass away, and what remains will be only the delight at finding a treasure, a pearl of great price, eternal life with the very source of our happiness, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Little Respite

For the few of you who come to this site, you may have noticed that I have not posted for a bit. This is because I am away from Rome and taking a little time to relax, which means also not attending as much to my blog. Ne timeatis! I will (eventually) get back to posting!