Saturday, January 23, 2016

Reversing Immunity

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc John Tornow

Sisters and brothers, does coffee have any effect on you? We all know the power of caffeine. We know it has the ability to wake us up. To energise us. And yet, don’t we also know of people on whom this power seems to have little or no effect? Just the other day, I met someone who told me that he can drink up to four or five cups of coffee a day and feel nothing. We know the reason for this. Very likely, he has developed a tolerance for, an immunity to, caffeine. By consuming too much of it. But experts say that it is actually possible to reverse this tolerance. To get over the immunity. By fasting from caffeine for a certain period of time. So that the body can regain its initial sensitivity. Can enjoy, once again, the power of caffeine.

Power, immunity, and reversal. 3 key elements in the story of caffeine. I mention them only because I think there’s something similar in our Mass readings today. Of course, our readings are not about caffeine. We are not trying to make you drink more coffee. The readings are, instead, about the Word of God. But, like caffeine, the story of the Word of God is also about power, and immunity, and reversal.

The responsorial psalm gives us a very impressive description of the powerful effects of God’s Word. Not unlike caffeine, the Word has the power to wake us up. We’re told that it revives the soul… gives wisdom to the simple… gladdens the heart… gives light to the eyes. And the psalm response tells us how God’s Word comes to have such marvellous effects on us: It’s because your words, Lord, are Spirit and life. And if God’s Word is life itself. Then experiencing its power is truly a matter of death and life.

The first reading shows us just what the power of God’s Word looks like in the concrete. What happens to people when they listen to God’s Word being proclaimed. First, we’re told about how the people respond by expressing their deep reverence for the Word. They stand. They raise their hands in praise. They prostrate themselves in worship. They express agreement by saying Amen! Amen! And, what is perhaps more impressive than anything else–especially to modern people like us, who are so easily distracted by the slightest thing–is how closely and attentively the people listen to the Word.

The reading tells us that the Word of God is proclaimed to them from early morning to noon. That’s a good 3 or 4 hours at least! And, even though the assembly includes children old enough to understand, there is no sign of restlessness or boredom. No mention of people texting or tweeting. Or rushing off to move their improperly parked cars. Everyone just keeps quiet. And listens. Closely and attentively. How do we know this? Because we’re told that they were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law! And, not only does the Word make them cry, it also moves them to share with others. With those who have nothing prepared ready. Such is the power of the Word of God.

And yet, this wasn’t always the case. The powerful effects of God’s Word were not always so keenly felt. In order for that to happen, certain obstacles had to be overcome. Immunities had to be reversed. The first of these is ignorance. In the first reading, many of the people have actually not been following God’s ways for quite some time. One reason for this is that they had forgotten God’s commandments. While they were living faraway in exile. How is this ignorance reversed?

After having been allowed to return to their homeland. And after having started rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. The people stumble upon a Book of the Law. They read it. And learn again, what they had once forgotten. That is what is actually happening in the first reading today. Ignorance is being reversed by learning. By re-learning. By recalling what has been forgotten.

But that’s not all. It’s not just a matter of ignorance. Of not knowing. For we can know the Word of God, and still not keep it. One reason for this is incomprehension. We may know the Word. But only in theory. We fail to appreciate its practical implications for our life. We see this also in the first reading. When the people are moved to tears by the proclamation of the Word, very likely they are sad, because they realise how much they have fallen short. And yet, the Word is not meant to make them feel bad about themselves. It is rather meant to energise. To inspire. To move them to rejoice. But in order for the people to see this, they need help. They need guidance. Wise advise provided by their leaders. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold. Incomprehension is reversed by guidance.

We see this also in the second reading. The Corinthian Christians are blessed with many different spiritual gifts. But, instead of bringing people closer, these gifts tear people apart. People use them to compete with, instead of to care for, one another. They are unable to enjoy the unifying power of God’s Word, because they fail to translate their theoretical knowledge into practical understanding. They lack comprehension. They need guidance. Someone to help them reverse their immunity to the Word. Someone like Paul. Now you together are Christ’s body; but each of you is a different part of it. Ignorance is reversed by learning. Incomprehension by guidance.

There is one more reason why people might become immune to the power of God’s Word. And it’s found in the gospel. Not just in today’s gospel. But especially in its continuation next week. Jesus stands up in the synagogue in his hometown, and proclaims the Word of God. After which, he preaches a one-sentence homily: This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen. What Jesus is saying is really quite amazing. That, precisely as he reads from the scriptures, the power of God’s Word is already taking effect. God is bringing good news to the poor. Proclaiming liberty to captives and to the blind new sight. Setting the downtrodden free…

And yet, as we will see in next week’s reading. Not only will the people not be able to appreciate this power. They will reject Jesus. Even try to kill him. Why? Because they are prejudiced. They cling to their own narrow ideas of who can be saved. Only Jews and not foreigners. In the language of St. Ignatius, they are bound by inordinate attachments. And this can only be reversed by letting go of their prejudice. So as to cling to God. St. Ignatius calls this holy indifference.

Ignorance is reversed by learning. Incomprehension by guidance. Inordinate attachment by indifference. This is how the power of God’s Word can be felt once again by those who may have become immune. A power that wakes us up. A power that fills us with joy. A power that binds us to God and to one another. A power that motivates us to share God’s love with a waiting world. A power that is a matter of life and death.

Sisters and brothers, it’s actually quite okay if caffeine has lost its effect on us. But what a great tragedy it would be if we were to remain immune to the life-giving power of God’s Word.

How is God continuing to reverse this immunity today?

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