Sunday, June 28, 2009

Two Women and a "muy determinada determinación"

(13th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 28 June, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Mark 5:21-43)

Our Gospel this weekend is a compelling and intriguing passage from St. Mark. He provides us with two very different situations, two separate story lines that collide in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

The first one—the story of Jairus and his daughter—is a powerful tale in its own right and could quite easily stand alone as the central plot (the short version of this weekend’s Gospel allows for exactly that option). Jairus, we are told, is a synagogue official; he was a man of considerable importance among the people of Israel. Nonetheless he is in dire straits as we discover his daughter is at the point of death.

Jairus is a man of faith, and he truly believes that if Jesus lays His hands on this little girl that she will be healed. Christ agrees to come to the man’s house, and we are perhaps almost as eager as Jairus is to see her cured. But then, seemingly from out of nowhere, the forward motion of that scene is interrupted!

A woman sneaks up behind Jesus and intentionally touches his cloak. St. Mark says that she was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages; to be clear, she suffered from a difficult menstrual problem. Obviously she would have been through a great deal of physical pain from that condition. But to grasp the gravity of her situation we have to understand that for a Jewish woman at the time of Christ, this condition would have set her apart from the rest of the community.

A woman, according to the Mosaic Law, could not participate in the communal worship during the time of her period (Leviticus 15:25-30). It was not a moral judgment, but certainly it would have been an inconvenience. Nonetheless, for this woman it would have been much more than that. With her specific condition she would have been indefinitely separated from gathering together with the community. She no doubt suffered physically, spiritually, and emotionally. She, too, is desperate to be healed.

Both these stories are filled with pathos and emotion, and although they are distinct and separate scenarios, they also have a lot in common. Firstly, both stories have at their very core the dignity of woman. If ever we wanted to know what Christ thinks about women, and how very loving, compassionate and involved He is in the lives of women, we do well to pay attention to these details. Secondly, in both situations the women encounter Jesus Christ physically; He speaks directly to them but in each case He also touches them (or they touch Him, as in the case of the woman afflicted with hemorrhages). Thirdly, and this follows directly from the second, they are healed and made whole from that encounter.

But there is one more important point these two stories have in common; St. Mark is telling us much more here than the fact that two women were healed. If he wanted he could have told us that in two sentences. Instead he goes on and on—for nearly two pages—about all the details that led up to those healings. The point he is making is that these events did not just happen. These people did not simply sit back and wait for something to occur that would change their lot. They persisted, they persevered, they had a holy determination despite tremendous obstacles, and in the end they experienced the healing power of Jesus Christ.

It has been said before that the road to healing is always blocked; there are always obstacles. These two situations this weekend show us that a holy determination can open the way for the power of God to work deeply in our lives and touch us in places we could not have imagined possible.

The woman afflicted with hemorrhages had suffered for twelve years. She had been to doctor after doctor and instead of healing she had only gotten worse! Why not just give up? But still she seeks healing and wholeness; she reaches out for Jesus Christ not with blind faith but with her eyes and heart wide open. That is holy determination! We get the impression that if she had not been able to take hold of Him there, perhaps she would have followed Him to the next town. Maybe she would have sought Him for weeks, months or even years. This woman had an indomitable spirit!

And so did Jairus. He was a man of faith who believed that Jesus Christ could heal his little girl. He sought out Christ; he was ready for almost anything. But then the worse thing imaginable had happened. He discovers that his daughter is not merely sick, but that she is dead. He could only have been devastated, ready to simply give up. But Christ must have sensed that, for He immediately says to Jairus: “Do not be afraid; just have faith” (Mark 5:36).

It is as if Christ is saying to him: You believed that I could heal her, now believe that I can raise her from the dead. You have come this far, do not give up! See this thing through! Believe in me! Jairus presses on and experiences something beyond what he could have possibly imagined when he left his house earlier that day.

Holy determination. Where is God calling us to have that same holy determination in our own lives at this time? I would answer that question and say—first and foremost—God is challenging us to have a holy determination in the foundational relationship we share with Him in prayer. Prayer is the foundation of our lives, the essential core of our existence in God. Through the intimate relationship we share with God in prayer we draw close in fellowship and communion with the one who St. Augustine says is “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” But that kind of intimacy is by no means automatic!

St. Teresa of Avila, who is amazing, wrote to her sisters that God has so much in store for us in prayer, but we will never arrive there unless we have a muy determinada determinación, “a very determined determination” (The Way of Perfection, Chapter 21, #2). We come to the chapel to pray and what we feel is...nothing. We sense that we are spiritually in the dark or that we are not praying properly, and we are tempted to give up. Don’t! The saints, and especially the mystics, tell us that is exactly where God is: in the silence, near; He is very, very near to us.

How is God calling us to a “very determined determination” in our prayer lives right now? We ask our seminarians here to pray for one hour minimum each day. For you, maybe that time is different. Maybe God is asking you to pray a little less than that…or maybe more. Whatever He is asking of us, we need to have a muy determinada determinación, a very determined determination in our daily prayer lives, knowing that here, perhaps more than in any other place, God can reach us, transform us and set our hearts on fire.

Secondly I would suggest that God is calling us to a very determined determination in our relationship with Him in the sacraments. In the sacraments of the Church we encounter Christ in a spiritual and physical way, and it is the touch of Christ that we truly long for. Both Jairus’ daughter and the woman afflicted with hemorrhages encountered Christ physically in our Gospel today, and they were healed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that He has not relinquished that role! We are told that “in the sacraments Christ continues to ‘touch’ us in order to heal us” (CCC, #1504).

When we receive the Eucharist we touch and encounter the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation we hear the voice of Jesus Christ speaking through the priest, saying, “I absolve you from your sins…” But we have to be determined to place ourselves in an openness and receptivity to fully embrace Christ when He comes to us in these encounters. Do we seek out reconciliation with a very determined determination? Do we prepare well for that encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, by praying before, obviously during, and also after we receive Him here?

Finally, do we have a muy determinada determinación when it comes to the relationships God has brought into our lives? Whether we are here today as seminarians, priests and religious, married couples or single persons, God has brought various relationships into our lives, but those relationships do not just happen. They require effort, sacrifice, and forgiveness. We need to have a very determined determination to see them through, to be faithful when we can be and to be sorry when we’re not.

May God give us all a muy determinada determinación in our lives of prayer, in our encounter with Him in the sacraments, and in the relationships we have been given, so that we might also experience His healing power and the fruits of determination in the life of grace.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Horton and the Dignity of Human Life

(Saturday of the of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 13 June, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Matthew 5:33-37)

I do not know if you are a Dr. Seuss fan or not, if you have perhaps read the “classics,” like The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But there is a movie that came out about a year and a half ago called Horton Hears a Who, and it is based upon the Dr. Seuss book with that same title.

It is the story of Horton, the Elephant. Like all elephants, Horton has great big ears and so he is able to hear things that most people cannot; he can tune into all kinds of sounds. Towards the beginning of the story he stumbles upon a small clover and suddenly hears something…In fact, that something is more like someone as Horton soon discovers a whole world which exists upon that little flower! There are thousands of tiny, little people, called Whos, that live on that clover.

From the very start Horton commits himself to protecting those people and to guiding them to a safe place where they can thrive and flourish (and not get stepped on!). Unfortunately he quickly runs into opposition as the other characters in the story begin to become suspicious of his strange new endeavor. They think he is either lying or delusional. They cannot hear any Whos, and they certainly cannot see any little people living on that clover. It must be a farce!

Undeterred, Horton devotes himself to safeguarding and protecting that clover and the tiny people that exist on it. He states, emphatically, that “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” and repeats many times throughout that movie and in the book:

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant,
an elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”

No matter what happens, and regardless of the opposition, he has vowed to watch over those little people and he means to follow through on that promise. Horton is crystal clear about what he intends to do and to carrying out this new found responsibility.

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant,
an elephant’s faithful one hundred percent.”

It is a delightful children’s story, but that same attitude is what Christ is highlighting in the Gospel this morning. He says:

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the Evil One.
—Matthew 5:37

In essence, Jesus is saying, “Be clear! Say what you mean and mean what you say. Be clear about your intentions, your will, your desires. Don’t waffle!”

That kind of clarity is desperately needed in the world today, and especially in the area of expertise that our friend Horton was a specialist in: the protection of life in its most minute form. Each one of us began as a tiny embryo. Before even your own mother knew it, you were an embryo inside her body, and God brought that new life into being with the cooperation of your parents. Life is sacred to Him, and to everyone of us, as well.

Today that sacred gift of life at its beginning is more vulnerable than at any other time in the history of civilization. Through embryonic stem-cell research, the human embryo is regarded as a means of experimentation and a mere instrument for scientific and medical progress. But every scientist will tell you that every time embryonic stem-cell research is undertaken—every time and without exception—the human embryo is destroyed. Human life comes to an end.

Abortion is being practiced legally in almost every country today, where the human embryo is intentionally destroyed in the name of human freedom and under the banner of “Choice.” Even artificial contraception, which is considered by some to be a perfectly acceptable and normal practice, often acts as an abortafacient. That means that, perhaps completely unknown to the person using it, the newly conceived human life is suddenly snuffed out and destroyed before he or she had the chance to be born. Is it any wonder that the Church has been fundamentally opposed to these practices and will consistently remain opposed to them?

But the culture we live in needs clarity on these issues, a clarity that is not always present even among the members of the Church. Catholic politicians will sometimes say, “No, I am personally opposed to abortion, but my constituents want to have a right to it, so I will say, 'Yes,' on this issue.” They say one thing, and then choose something else. Christ is clear in the Gospel:

Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Anything more is from the Evil One.
—Matthew 5:37

And so, my brothers, as we continue the work of formation for the priesthood we are reminded of how very important it is to be clear and decisive when it comes to these essential areas of human life. We are the ones who study these important questions, and spend years learning the theology regarding the dignity of the human person. We are called to articulate—in the parish and in all the places God sends us to after ordination—the great value and dignity of human life from conception until natural death.

Let us ask God for the grace to do that; to study well, learn well, and teach well the beauty and dignity of life in the face of so much opposition. No matter what, let us protect, safeguard and celebrate human life by our preaching, teaching and way of life, so that we can say, along with Horton: “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” and

“I meant what I said and I said what I meant,
a Christian is faithful one hundred percent.”