Thursday, January 17, 2008

Thursday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Memorial of St. Anthony, Abbot
Turning the World Upside Down

Readings: 1 Samuel 4:1-11; Psalm 44:10-11, 14-15, 24-25; Mark 1:40-45

Have you ever done a handstand or a headstand before? It’s not really a pleasant experience. The blood rushes to your head, and the world looks disconcertingly different. But then, there are some who claim that there are health benefits to the practice. I bring this up because our readings today call to mind the following verse from another part of the bible. In the Revised Standard Version of Acts 17:6, we find this accusation leveled against Paul and Silas by the Jews of Thessalonica: These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also…

If our readings today have anything in common, this seems to be it. In the first reading, the Israelites are used to experiencing God fighting on their side, especially when the ark is with them. Isn’t this why they raise a mighty shout at the arrival of the ark from Shiloh? They are confident that God will fight on their side and lead them to a great victory against their enemies the Philistines. But their world is turned upside down when they are made to suffer two disastrous defeats. Their feelings are poignantly expressed in their question: why has the Lord permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines?

At least in the context of the first book of Samuel, the answer seems clear. God has forsaken them because they have first forsaken God. In particular, the priestly family comprising Eli and his two sons has been unfaithful to God. As such, in handing the people of Israel over to the Philistines, God is, in effect, fighting for them against a far more dangerous enemy. God turns their world upside down only so that they might acknowledge the error of their ways and turn back to God.

Doesn’t Jesus do something similar in the gospel? In a culture wherein lepers are shunned, Jesus turns the world upside down by allowing his compassion to move him to heal a leper by touching him. But that’s not all. Isn’t Jesus turning the world upside down in even deeper ways? In a culture that places great emphasis on honor and shame, Jesus shuns apparently positive publicity because he judges it to be contrary to his mission. His compassionate touch quickly turns into a stern warning: see that you tell no one anything… In a culture that considers suffering as a punishment for sin, or otherwise as a curse from God, Jesus willingly suffers for the sake of love. Not only does he touch and heal the leper, he actually ends up taking the leper’s place at the margins of society. We’re told that he remained outside in deserted places. Does this miracle story not turn our minds to the bigger picture of what Jesus comes to do? Does it not remind us of how, by his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus comes to turn our world upside down so that our hearts might be turned back to the Father? And is this not the same mission that we are invited to share, as Paul and Silas were?

As we reflect over our Mass readings today, perhaps we might consider the different ways in which God might be nudging us into a handstand.

How does God wish to turn our world upside down today?

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