Sunday, February 18, 2007

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
(First Day of the Lunar New Year)
Negotiating Doors and Doormats on the Way

Readings: 1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-1; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly…

Although we have not chosen special readings to suit the occasion, it’s highly appropriate for us to hear these words on this first day of the Lunar New Year. Traditionally, for those who mark the occasion, this is a time for reunions and visitations. This is the time to catch up with relatives and friends whom we see infrequently, a time to maintain and to renew relationships.

But isn’t it true that, at least for some if not many of us, it’s not always a completely happy time? As children we may have eagerly awaited the New Year because we enjoyed receiving red packets and wearing new clothes. But as adults don’t we sometimes feel that it’s really quite a hassle? Quite apart from all the shopping and cooking and cleaning that needs to be done, one has also to meet and be nice to various people that one might sometimes prefer to forget. Of course, in theory, this is a privileged time for feuding friends and family members alike to bury the hatchet. But, in practice, doesn’t it sometimes seem as though the New Year is precisely the time for that hatchet to be buried more deeply into someone’s back and perhaps even twisted for added effect?

I’m exaggerating, of course. Please don’t be scandalized. The point is that we probably don’t have to look too far to find the enemies that the Lord is asking us to love. And whether we celebrate the Lunar New Year or not, each of us probably knows from experience how difficult it is to put Jesus’ instructions into practice. This is perhaps especially so when one’s enemies are of one’s own household (Matthew 10:36).

It’s difficult because enemies are such usually for a reason. Often they have knowingly or unknowingly caused us pain in one way or another. And when this happens it seems like every fiber of our being resists even the slightest suggestion of forgiveness and reconciliation. We have been hurt and quite understandably we respond by protecting ourselves, if not by retaliating. We slam the door of our anger and resentment and shut out the offending party. Indeed, we may need to hide behind this door for a time, because to open it is also to make ourselves vulnerable to being hurt again. Dare we risk it?

And yet we know that we cannot stay behind this door forever. Because the protection that it affords can very quickly turn into a prison, trapping us within our own fear and self-pity. We remain stuck in the life of the earthly man that Paul talks about in the second reading, and are prevented from living the life of the heavenly man. We are prevented from sharing in the freedom and love and joy and peace that is the birthright of the followers of the crucified and risen Christ. However deep the hurt, we need somehow to bring it to the Lord, so that he can heal us, so that the door of our anger and resentment might be flung open and we might once again breathe the fresh air of the resurrected life in the Holy Spirit.

But it’s also important to see that to open the door doesn’t mean we have then to turn ourselves into a doormat for everyone to step on. To love our enemies doesn’t mean we must necessarily give in to all their demands. Isn’t it true that sometimes the loving thing to do is precisely to stand our ground and to refuse to accede to another’s unreasonable demands, even when it might cause pain, both to us and to the other? It is true that Jesus tells us in the gospel today to turn the other cheek. And we know that during his Passion he submitted silently and meekly to being spat at and struck on the face and ultimately to being nailed to the cross. Still, his suffering was the direct result of him refusing to bow to the will of the religious authorities of his day. He continued to heal on the Sabbath. for example, and to speak out against hypocrisy even when they repeatedly warned him not to. And in the gospel of John, we are told that when one of the temple police struck Jesus on the face, instead of meekly turning the other cheek, and saying, Thank you very much. Would you care to do that again? he responded with, If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? (John 18:23).

To pass, then, from the earthly to the heavenly existence that is meant for all Christians, we need continually to walk through the doorway of resentment and across the doormat of passivity. But all this is much easier to preach than it is to practice. And we do ourselves a disservice if we expect that it will happen overnight. Of course, it sometimes does. But just as often it can take a very long a time, as long a time as the hurt is deep. And we need to be willing to endure the process. Indeed, we need to acknowledge that, in some way, each of us is still very much in process, very much on the way. And can’t we say the same of David? Despite his noble actions in the first reading, we know that a time will come, after he becomes king, when he will engineer the death of a loyal subject in order to conceal his own adultery. He too is in process. He too is on the way.

I am reminded of a married couple I know who recently encountered a major crisis in their life together. One of them discovered that the other had been unfaithful. You may imagine the chaos that resulted, the intensity of the feelings that were stirred up in both of them. There was guilt and shame, and anger and resentment, just to name a few. There was an understandable urge to point the finger one at the other. But what really moved and inspired me, even as they came, individually and together, to talk about their struggles, was the matured way in which the crisis was managed. Although at the beginning I could imagine that just thinking about the situation was like rubbing salt into an open wound, both of them persevered in grappling with their feelings without suppressing them. They also sought the help that they needed to do this and tried as far as possible to keep communication channels open in some way, even if it meant writing notes to each other when talking was unproductive and even destructive.

They were willing to do all this even when it was very tough because early on in the process they both somehow realized that although there were some crucial aspects of their marriage and of each other that they were unhappy with, deep down they each valued the relationship and wanted the marriage to work. You might say that, like David, they recognized that their marriage had been anointed by God. There was also the question of the children, visible signs of that divine anointing.

Two weeks after the infidelity was first discovered I had the opportunity to speak with the one we may consider the aggrieved party. One could hardly say that the pain and confusion had disappeared, much less that all was forgiven. But the progress was evident and even remarkable. The feelings were much less intense. One could sense, one could dare to hope, that although they were not quite out of the woods yet, they were on their way.

And isn’t this what we all can aim for? Difficult as it is to pass through the doorway of resentment and across the doormat of passivity in order to love our enemies and bless those who curse us, isn’t it possible to at least be on the way?

Sisters and brothers, today the Lord continues to call us to stretch beyond the earthly life of Adam towards the resurrected life of Christ. What do we need from Him to persevere on our way?

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