Sunday, January 15, 2017

Rehabilitating the Appendix

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc AJC1

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? You know, of course, what an appendix is, right? It’s that slender little tube located at the end of the large intestine. For a long time, it was thought that the appendix serves no useful purpose. That it makes no real contribution to the healthy functioning of the human body. That, in the process of human evolution, it was somehow left behind and forgotten. Indeed, it can even be considered a nuisance. Since it is so prone to getting inflamed. And then having to be surgically removed.

So, my dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? Like you serve no real purpose in this world. Like you were useless. A waste of space. I’m not sure. But I suspect that there are more than a few of us who may feel this way from time to time. Whether we may care to admit it or not. Feel as though our existence is pointless. Aimless. Meaningless. Sure, our lives may be filled with many things that we have to do. Some of which may even be very important. And yet, don’t we sometimes still feel strangely empty? Isn’t this why some of us work so hard? Or shop so much? Or check our phones so frequently? Or indulge in various bad habits? Aren’t we somehow trying to avoid the depressing thought that, if we suddenly dropped dead, the world will still go on without us? Sure, there will likely be a wake and a funeral in our honour. Some prayers will be offered for us. Our bosses may need to replace us. Our families and friends may miss us. But, after all is said and done, won’t life go on as it did before? Not unlike how the body goes on even after the appendix is removed? So what’s the point?

My dear friends, have you ever felt like an appendix? I imagine that it can be a terrible thing to feel this way. Perhaps it's what leads some people to think of suicide. After all, if an appendix can be removed without adverse effects, why not a human life? Why not my life? And yet, as some of you may know, more recently, researchers have been saying that the appendix may not be useless after all. It is thought that it could actually perform the important function of storing and preserving helpful bacteria in the body. Bacteria that is essential to the immune system. Bacteria that would otherwise be wiped out should the body suffer a sudden bout of food poisoning, for example. So that it is now believed that people who have had their appendices removed may take a longer time to recover from certain illnesses. In other words, the appendix is in the process of being rehabilitated. Rescued from uselessness.

And what modern researchers are doing for the appendix, our Mass readings can do for us. Especially those of us who sometimes can’t help feeling like an appendix ourselves. For if there is one thing that all our readings have in common, it is that they contain people with a very clear sense of their own function. Their own true purpose. Their own proper role in the greater scheme of things.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah reminds the people of Israel of their own high calling. Far from being useless, they are called to be God’s servant. Called to continue praising and glorifying God. By living and worshipping together as a united people in God’s sight. And that’s not all. God tells them that their function goes beyond themselves. It extends even to the far reaches of the world. I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

We find a similar sense of purpose in the second reading, taken from the beginning of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In introducing himself, Paul leaves no doubt as to who he is and what he is called to do. I, Paul, appointed by God to be an apostle. As you know, the word apostle means one who is sent. And not only is Paul sure of his own identity and mission. He is sure also of the identity and mission of the people to whom he is writing. He sends greetings to the church of God in Corinth, to the holy people of Jesus Christ, who are called to take their place among all the saints everywhere…

And just as the second reading describes Paul’s conviction. So too does the gospel present to us with that of John the Baptist. Notice how convinced the Baptist is of Jesus’ identity and mission. Without hesitation, he proclaims Jesus the lamb of God and the Chosen One. And it is not just about Jesus’s purpose and mission that the Baptist is clear. He is clear, first of all, of his own proper role and function. I did not know him myself, he says, and yet it was to reveal him to Israel that I came baptising with water…. Yes, I have seen and I am the witness…

Servant of God and light to the nations… Appointed apostle and holy people… Baptising prophet and outspoken witness… Lamb of God and Chosen One. My dear friends, these descriptions leave no room for doubt that the people in our readings today have a clear sense of who they are and the roles they are meant to play. Isaiah. Paul. John the Baptist. These are people who do not live empty lives. Sure, they do have to face terrible struggles. They may be persecuted and even put to death for their beliefs. But whatever else they may have to suffer, they do not suffer from a sense of uselessness or meaninglessness.

Far from feeling painfully empty, their lives are instead joyfully full. And it is this fullness, this sense of purpose, that is being offered to us today. To you and to me. And the key word is offered. For the sense of purpose enjoyed by the people in our readings today is quite unlike the kind of fullness that our world may encourage us to pursue. The kind of fullness that comes only from our own determination and achievement. Our own desperate attempts to fill our lives with every manner of frantic activity. Yes, even apparently pious activity. The fullness experienced in our readings today is first, and above all, a gift. A gift generously offered. Asking to be humbly received.

Isn’t this why we find words like called and appointed, chosen and sent, appearing so frequently in our readings? Contrary to what we may have been led to believe, the secret to living a truly full and meaningful life comes to us not first of all as a project that we undertake for ourselves. But rather as a gift that we receive from God. The initiative is not ours. But God’s. The same God who called and appointed, chose and sent, first Isaiah, and then John the Baptist. First Jesus, and then Paul. This same God is also calling and choosing, appointing and sending us. You and me. Asking us to let our lives revolve first of all around God’s love for us. A love that has been, and continues to be, offered to us, in the very concrete circumstances of our daily lives. We are called first to experience this love for ourselves. And then to go and share it with the rest of our world. Isn’t this why we gather here at this Mass? To remember and to celebrate this great love. To experience it for ourselves. And then to be sent to proclaim it to others. Go and announce the gospel of the Lord!

My dear friends, a precious gift is even now being offered to us. What must we do to continue humbly receiving it? For ourselves and for those to whom we are sent? What must we do to allow God to continue rehabilitating the appendix of our lives today?

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