Sunday, July 09, 2006

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
From Idol to Icon

Readings: Ezek 2:2-5; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

Dear sisters and brothers, the old catechism contained the following question and answer: “Where is God? God is everywhere.” And that in fact is what we believe: God is everywhere! But if that is indeed true, have you ever wondered why so few seem to experience God?

If God is everywhere, wouldn’t people be quick to recognize and turn to Him, so as to find true meaning in their lives? Instead, we often see many who seem lost: people who live lives – even very affluent lives – of quiet desperation.

If God is everywhere, shouldn’t we be able to find consolation in His presence and direction in His word on a regular basis? And yet, all too often, we instead find ourselves either too busy to care or grasping anxiously in the darkness, at a loss as to where to go and what to do.

Could it be that the problem lies with us? Could it be that, although God is present, we do not have the eyes to see and the ears to hear Him? Could our situation be similar to what we find in the gospel reading of today? Here is Jesus teaching in the synagogue in his home town and the people “would not accept Him.” In Jesus, God is present in their midst, but unrecognized and unaccepted. Why? Because Jesus is simply too familiar to them. “This is the carpenter,” they say, “the son of Mary…” Familiarity hinders recognition.

Is this not the same problem we face? Everything, everyone, in our lives, is too familiar – our families and our friends, our worship and our work – such that we are unable to recognize God in them. And we pay the price for our failure. But how and why does this over-familiarity happen?

It has to do with how we see. When it comes to recognizing God, there are really two ways of seeing, one that hinders and another that helps. The way that hinders is the way that sees things and people as idols.

An idol is opaque – like a brick wall. You cannot see through it or beyond it. And so you find yourself restricted to examining its surface. Isn’t this what happens to the people in the gospel today? When they look at Jesus, they do not see the presence of God, but only the Jesus with whom they are familiar. They only see what is on the surface: “the carpenter… the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon.” And even though they acknowledge the wisdom of Jesus’ words they cannot bring themselves to accept Him. To accept Him would mean letting go of their familiarity, changing their ideas about Jesus. And this they are unwilling to do

But why, we might ask, are they so attached to their preconceived notions about Jesus? The reason lies in another characteristic of an idol. Not only is an idol opaque, it also often functions as a mirror. When one looks at something as an idol, one is really looking only at oneself. Isn’t this why we have celebrities? Isn’t this why the “American Idol” franchise is so popular? Don’t many people project their own unfulfilled dreams and anxieties onto their idols? And is this not why the people in the gospel refuse to accept Jesus? To accept Him would mean they have to change their view of Him, which also means they have to change their view of themselves – something they are unwilling to do.

In order to recognize the presence of God in our midst, we need instead to see things and people as icons. In contrast to the idol – which is like a brick wall – an icon is more like glass. It’s translucent. When one looks at an icon, one doesn’t stop at the icon itself. Instead, one’s gaze is somehow drawn to what lies beyond.

Isn’t this what Paul is describing in the second reading today. He speaks of “a thorn in the flesh,” a specific area of suffering and trial that he continues to experience despite having asked God to remove it. But his gaze does not stop at the trial itself. Somehow he is able to see beyond the trial, to its deeper meaning. He is able to see how his suffering helps him to experience the strength that comes from God alone. “I shall be very happy,” he says “to make my weaknesses my special boast… For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”

Isn’t this also the experience of the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading? Ezekiel proclaims the word of God to the people even in the face of opposition, because he is able to see beyond the people’s rejection of his message to the reality of his own personal calling as a prophet. It is God Himself who has called him to prophesy, so that “whether they listen or not, this set of rebels shall know there is a prophet among them.”

The lesson for us then is clear. If we find it difficult to recognize God in our lives, perhaps we need to examine and change the way we see. Perhaps we need to look for icons instead of idols. But how are we to do this? Only by having an experience of what lies beyond. And how are we to obtain this experience?

Again, our readings help us. Notice how the first reading begins. Notice how Ezekiel comes to hear God’s call. “The spirit came into me,” Ezekiel says “and made me stand up, and I heard the Lord speaking to me.” The ability to see beyond the surface, to look at things as icons instead of idols, to recognize the presence of God in our midst, comes not so much through our own effort, but as a gracious gift from God. And it is for this grace that we need to pray. As we declared in the response to the psalm today, we need to keep “our eyes on the Lord till he show us his mercy.”

Isn’t this also the experience of Paul? In his affliction he cries out to God. And God helps him to see how his trial is actually bringing and keeping him close to God. “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.”

From Paul’s experience we learn that while everything depends on God’s grace, there are things we can do to become more open to receiving the Spirit. For example, we can try to set aside time each day for personal prayer and for reading God’s word in the Bible. We can also enroll in such worthwhile programmes as the “Life in the Spirit Seminars” or the “Week of Guided Prayer” – both of which are being offered in our parish.

My sisters and brothers, God is everywhere! How well do we see and recognize Him for ourselves and point Him out to others?

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