Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tuesday in the 1st Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Questioning Authority

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:9-20; 1 Samuel 2:1, 4-5, 6-7, 8abcd; Mark 1:21-28

What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him…

Today I’m reminded of two anecdotes from different places told to me at different times by different people. The first has to do with the distribution of communion at Mass. Most of us have probably noticed how there are some who prefer to receive communion from the hands of an ordained priest even when it means having to join a longer queue. Well, it seems that the priest at a certain church, noticing this phenomenon, has taken to waiting for the communion queue to form in front of him and then quickly switching places with a communion minister…

The second anecdote has to do with the appointment of a lay person to take charge of the day-to-day running of an important diocesan organization. It seems that although one or two members of the local clergy have been given responsibility to oversee the organization, they pretty much let the lay person have a free reign. Some feel it’s because this person was a corporate big-wig in a past life and so the priests defer to his/ her experience. But what seems to have been forgotten is that, despite the good intentions and expertise of the one concerned, s/he is relatively new to religious affairs and still requires guidance in matters of the spirit…

I don’t know how true these stories are. But, even taken at face value, I believe they invite us to reflect on an issue that presents itself also in our readings today. They invite us, so to speak, to question authority. Why do Mass-goers prefer to receive communion from an ordained priest? Why do ordained priests with the responsibility of oversight defer so totally to a lay leader? How is authority being recognized and exercised?

The readings lead us to question authority in this way also by way of two stories. Something surprising happens in both, something that results from a particular exercise of authority. In the gospel, people are amazed when the unclean spirit is exorcized. And ought we not to be surprised too by the experience of Hannah in the first reading? Even though she had yet to conceive, we’re told that, upon leaving the temple, she no longer appeared downcast. The deep sorrow and misery that afflicted her earlier had been driven out of her.

But what is perhaps even more surprising than these effects of authority being exercised is its unlikely source. In the gospel, instead of any of the synagogue officials, it is Jesus who exorcizes. And although Eli is the priest in the first reading, the lifting of Hannah’s spirits seems more the result of her own impassioned plea to God than Eli’s ministrations. Indeed, doesn’t Eli initially mistake her prayer for drunkenness? In both cases, authority flows unexpectedly from each person’s relationship with God. Hannah is helped when she lays bare her needs before the Lord, just as Jesus receives his identity and affirmation from his heavenly father, especially at the moment when he humbly submits to baptism by John in the Jordan.

Are these scripture stories not inviting us to reflect upon the manner in which we recognize and exercise authority? Do they not, for example, challenge us to examine the extent to which we submit unquestioningly to authority without giving thought to its source? Do they not also call us to account for the times when we might be tempted to shirk our own responsibility to exercise our God-given authority as baptized sons and daughters of a loving Father?

How are we being called to question authority today?

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