Sunday, September 06, 2015

Jesus Christ and the "Wonderful Exchange"

El Greco  1570

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on September 6, 2015 at St. Rocco's Catholic Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Isaiah 35:4-7, James 2:1-5  and Mark 7:31-37)

There is a remarkable and beautiful short story written by Walter Wangerin, Jr., called “The Ragman” [Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., HarperCollins Publishers.  This is an awesome book filled with great stories of life in Christ].  The story begins with a young man walking through the inner city, dragging behind him an old cart filled with all kinds of new clothes.  He makes his way through the streets, calling out in a sonorous voice, “Rags!  New rags for old!  I take your tired rags!  Rags!  He is strong, intelligent and vivacious, leaving the narrator of the story ultimately perplexed as to why a person of such quality would ever reduce himself to being a ragman in the inner city.

Suddenly the Ragman comes upon a woman sitting on her back porch, hunched over and sobbing.  Her shoulders are shaking as she weeps into her handkerchief.  The Ragman bends near her and says, with great compassion, “Give me your rag…and I’ll give you another.”   She looks up, surprised, not knowing what to say.  The Ragman places a bright, new handkerchief into her hands and takes her wet, worn handkerchief away.  He suddenly places it against his own face, and the narrator is astonished to see the woman’s tears completely dried up, while the ragman begins to weep! 

Without hesitation he moves on, deeper into the city.   Coming upon a woman with a bandaged head, he likewise asks her for her old rag and offers her a beautiful yellow bonnet; with loving concern he carefully removes her bandage and places it on his own head!  But the narrator notices a fresh wound has opened up where the Ragman has fastened his bandage, and a little trickle of blood begins to flow down his head! 

As the story continues, the narrator follows the weeping, bleeding Ragman, breathlessly, through the city.   Eventually, after several similar adventures and even greater ones, he comes to realize that the Ragman is the Christ, the Son of God. 

Jesus Christ is the redeemer who comes to take away the sins of the world and to give us His own divine life.  He takes on our sorrow, our own pain and suffering, and brings it to the cross.  He is willing to suffer and die so that we can gain new and everlasting life in Him!  In all of our readings for this weekend we see that amazing transformation that constitutes our new life in Jesus Christ, what the Father’s of the Church called the “wonderful exchange.”

St. James, in our Second Reading this morning, warns us not to show partiality to the wealthy at the expense of the poor.  When someone enters your assembly, he cautions them, be careful how you treat them!  He asks:

Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?
—James 2:5

In other words, we were all poor!  We were all impoverished by our sins and God has made us now heirs of His kingdom.  We have become rich in Jesus Christ; our lives should reflect that great mystery, not betray it.

In that beautiful passage from Isaiah, the prophet is describing what will take place when the Messiah comes.  It is a breathtaking transformation that will affect everyone and everything on earth:

Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.
—Isaiah 35:4

Then Isaiah goes on to describe how the eyes of the blind will be opened!  The ears of the deaf will be cleared and they will hear once again!  Those who are mute will begin to sing.  Even the created world will be transformed, as dry, arid deserts become pools of water (Isaiah 35:4-7)!

That “wonderful exchange” is something that happens quite literally in our Gospel this weekend.  People bring to Christ the deaf man with a speech impediment, and Jesus does the strangest thing: He sticks His finger in the man’s ear and then puts His own saliva on that person’s tongue!  Yet with that odd, physical encounter the man is healed; his ears are opened and he begins to speak once again.  Why would Jesus Christ, who can heal anyone, in whatever manner he chooses, heal a man with such obvious and even unnerving physical signs?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Christ, who did that, and consistently reaches out and touches those who are broken and the hurting in the Gospels, continues to touch us in the sacraments in order to heal us (see CCC, #1504).   He has come to take from us our brokenness, our pain and sorrow, and to give us His own divine life.  Every one of us needs to be healed, touched by Christ and made well again.  All of us have failed to recognize Christ in the world around us and in our brothers and sisters each and every day.   We are the reason that He became man and suffered and died on the cross.  What He asks of us is that we open our hearts—Ephphatha!—to receive this great gift.

This morning Jesus Christ comes to us here on this altar, not the Ragman but the Christ.  He comes to give us not a handkerchief or a new bonnet but His own body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.  He comes to complete in us and in our community that “wonderful exchange” that has the power to transform our lives and the world around us.  May we truly open our hearts to Him, who continues to touch us in the sacraments of the Church in order to heal us.