Sunday, October 18, 2009

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Did You See The Gorilla?

Readings: Isaiah 53:10-11; Psalm 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:35-45 or 10:42-45
Picture: cc mrflip

Sisters and brothers, recently someone told me about an experiment he’d been involved in on campus a while ago. Apparently it’s quite a famous experiment. Some of you may have heard or even participated in it. A group of maybe 100 or more people was asked to watch a short video clip in which several other people, some wearing white and others wearing black, were passing basketballs to one another. The watchers were asked to count the number of times the ball was passed between the people in white. After the clip had been screened, various answers were given. Then, to the surprise of most of the test subjects, they were asked how many of them had seen the gorilla. Gorilla? What gorilla? Only two people raised their hands. The video was screened again. And, sure enough, in the middle of it, someone in a black gorilla suit walked right through the group of ball players. In fact, the gorilla had taken center stage, and yet most of the subjects hadn’t seen it. They’d been so focused on the ball that they’d missed the gorilla.

It may seem strange, but doesn’t this experiment mirror what we see happening in our gospel today? To recognize the similarity we need to situate today’s passage in the wider context of Mark’s gospel. We need to consider what has gone before and what will come after. We need to see, for example, that up until this moment, Jesus and his disciples have been moving ever closer to Jerusalem. In the very next chapter they will finally enter the Holy City. And, all along their journey, in addition to ministering to the crowds with his wise words and healing touch, Jesus has also been trying very hard to tell his companions about what awaits him in Jerusalem. In fact, today’s gospel passage follows immediately after Jesus’ third prediction of his Passion and Death. For the third time, Jesus tells his closest companions: Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise(10:33f.). And what we heard just now is the response of Jesus' friends to this bone-chilling revelation. Their beloved Master has just told them, yet again, that he will soon die a horrible death. And James and John respond with: Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left. Not only that, we are also told that, when the (other) ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. And they were upset not because the Zebedee brothers had been insensitive, but rather because they had been trying to get ahead of the rest of them.

In other words, even though, all along their journey towards Jerusalem, the reality of Jesus’ impending suffering and death had actually taken center stage in their conversations, the disciples had missed it. Not unlike the test subjects who missed the gorilla even though it walked by right in front of them. Like those test subjects, the disciples’ were more interested in what had been going on in the background. They were concentrating on the glorious acclaim that Jesus had garnered from the crowds in his public ministry. Seeing earthly praise already received, they wanted also to share in the heavenly glory that was yet to come. Obsessed with their image of a glorious Messiah in the distant future, they missed the heartbreaking sight of the Suffering Servant closer at hand. Concentrating only on their own desires, they missed their chance to do what friends might be expected to do in similar situations – if not to console, then at least to try to empathize with the one who is suffering. It is not surprising then that when Jesus’ predictions eventually came to pass, when he was finally arrested in Gethsemane, they all left him and fled (14:50). They ran away because they hadn’t yet understood what Jesus had been trying to teach them. Focused as they were only on the passing to them of the ball of the Lord’s glory, they had missed the intruding gorilla of His Cross.

And perhaps this tendency of the first disciples is something that we are also particularly prone to in this modern age. As you may have heard, some people speak of ours as a feel-good generation, living in an increasingly therapeutic society. Many of us tend to assume – and I might include myself here too – that to be healthy and happy, an individual has to be free from all negative emotions and experiences. So that if we aren’t feeling good about ourselves at any given moment, if the struggles of life trouble us to any degree, then there must be something wrong with us. We need therapy, or counseling, or healing. We need help to take the pain away… And perhaps we do. But this obsession with our own individual well-being often leads us to fail to consider what others might be going through. So caught up are we in our own pressing concerns that we have no room to empathize with the pain of others, even those closest to us, let alone those who are far away. Like the first disciples and the subjects in the experiment, we concentrate so much on the ball that we fail to notice the gorilla.

And perhaps this would be all right, if not for the fact that there is a crucial difference between our situation and the gorilla experiment – a difference that our readings highlight for us quite strikingly. In the experiment, although the gorilla takes center stage at some point, it doesn’t have any real relation to the passing of the ball. Indeed, the gorilla is more of a distraction than anything else. The situation in our readings, however, is quite the opposite. Here, we find an intimate connection between passing into glory and the endurance of suffering. In the second reading, we are reminded that Christ identified himself so closely with us that in him we no longer have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. And the first reading tells us that it is by thus undergoing affliction for our sake that the suffering servant came to see the light in fullness of days. Also, not only does Christ’s passing into glory depend on his endurance of suffering, but his passing of glory on to us also depends upon our willingness to share in the sufferings of others. Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Christian, the way to true happiness has to pass through the other, especially the other who suffers.

Or, in the words of that song popularized in the sixties by Jefferson Airplane, when the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies… you better find somebody to love… Especially when the going gets tough, particularly when we might be sorely tempted to focus solely on our own needs – perhaps during a time of budget cuts, for example – we need to find somebody to love. And, happily, our celebration of World Mission Sunday today offers us an opportunity to express that love in concrete monetary terms. But World Mission Sunday comes only once a year, one day out of three hundred and sixty five. What about the rest of the time?

Sisters and brothers, when we leave this place to live out the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year, how many of us will see the gorilla? How many of us will find somebody to love?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Moving House

Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-13, 14-15, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30 or 10:17-27
Picture: cc hagwall

Sisters and brothers, do you like to travel? Many of us do. Traveling broadens our horizons. We get to visit new places, to see new sights, to meet new people. But no matter how far we go, how many great sights we see, or how many interesting people we meet, we usually get a special feeling when we return home, don’t we? It doesn’t matter how much fun we’ve had on the road. There’s almost a kind of relief, when we’re able to settle back into familiar surroundings, to put up our feet after snuggling into our favorite chair, to shut our eyes in the warmth of our own bed. Finally, we’re home!

And all of us have a home of some sort, don’t we? It doesn’t matter if work commitments mean that we often have to live out of a suitcase. Nor does it matter even if we don’t actually have a roof over our heads. For a home doesn’t really have to be a physical location. As the saying goes, home is where the heart is. And the human heart has a marvelous capacity for making its home in all sorts of different places. Sometimes home is an object or a memory. Sometimes it takes the form of a person or an activity. Whatever it is, we all have a home of some sort, a (literal or figurative) place, where our hearts find rest.

But, of course, we’re not always aware of this, are we? We don’t always know exactly where our home is. Especially if we tend to wander around a lot, we can often fail to recognize the exact place where our hearts prefer to rest. Which can be dangerous, because our chosen homes are not always the best places to be. Sometimes, for example, some of us may find our home in a bottle of pills or liquor, or in the screen of a slot machine or a computer, or in various unhealthy eating or working habits. Remaining in such homes is highly detrimental to our wellbeing, as well as to the wellbeing of those who love us. Common sense dictates that, if we live in homes like these, and if we want to enjoy a fuller life, then we have to move. But that is often much easier said than done.

Which brings us to a question that today’s gospel reading poses to us. To the man who at first seems to have everything a person could need or want, Jesus says, there is one thing you lack. But what is this one thing? We may imagine that this was also the question at the top of the rich man’s mind. I’ve kept all the commandments. What could I possibly lack?

If we take this question as the central focus of the passage, then what Jesus asks of the rich man begins to make a lot of sense. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me. For notice the effect that this apparently demanding – if not downright unreasonable – request has on the man. Of course, we don’t know for sure exactly what was going on in his mind. All the gospel tells us is that his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. But perhaps it is not too difficult to imagine what lay behind his disappointment. Perhaps it's possible to imagine that Jesus’ words actually helped the man to recognize for himself the place that he called home. As a result of Jesus’ call, the man finally began to see the extent to which his heart was resting in his many possessions. And not just his material possessions, all of which Jesus wanted him to sell and give to the poor. But also his moral possessions, all the commandments that he prided himself in having observed from his youth. From these too, he was to detach himself, if he wanted to inherit eternal life. Not that he was to stop keeping the Law, but that he would no longer rely on its observance for his salvation, but on his following of the Lord.

And this, of course, brings to mind what the second reading tells us about the word of God being living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow… to discern the reflections and thoughts of the heart. With just a few carefully chosen words, Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, penetrates the heart of the rich man, uncovering his deepest desires, and helping him to see the place he calls home.

But that’s not all. In addition, Jesus also shows the rich man how detrimental this home of his can be to his own spiritual wellbeing. For in choosing to rest in his many possessions instead of following Jesus, the man was doing the exact opposite of what the first reading tells us a spiritually astute person would do. As we heard just now, the spirit of wisdom is to be preferred over scepter and throne… all gold, in view of her, is a little sand, and before her, silver is to be accounted mire… So that to choose possessions over Jesus, gold over the Wisdom of God, is the same as to prefer the worthless over the priceless, the passing over that which endures. It is to make a foolish choice, a dangerous choice. All of which meant one thing for the rich man: it was time for him to move, to change his home. But that’s much easier said than done. And so, we’re told, he went away sad.

Speaking for myself, it’s not too difficult to identify with the rich man. It’s not too difficult to imagine oneself in the position of knowing what has to be done, and yet still be unwilling, even unable, to do it. We all know, for example, the damage being done to the earth by our current patterns of energy consumption. And yet, how difficult it is to move out of this comfortable home that we have made for ourselves. How hard it is to take the bus instead of drive, or to use a fan instead of the A/C. What Jesus tells the rich man applies as well to us: there’s one thing you lack… You’re unable to move, even when you know you need to.

In contrast, in the gospels, we find Jesus continually on the move. Today’s reading, for example, begins by telling us that he was setting out on a journey. And we know where his journeying would lead him: to Calvary and beyond. Jesus is able to do this because, unlike the rich man, he makes his home not in possessions, but in his Father’s will. His heart rests in his Father’s love.

According to a Chinese legend, when the sage Mencius was a boy, his mother moved house three times. Their first home was near a cemetery. And little Mencius would imitate the wailing of the mourners passing by. Their second home was near an abattoir. And the boy mimicked the shrieking of the animals as they were being slaughtered. Finally, they found a place by a school. And the boy began to follow the lessons that were being recited by the students. Only then did his mother finally settle down. It must not have been easy to move house so often. But for the love of her son, the wise mother was willing and able to suffer the inconvenience.

Perhaps it’s for this same kind of wisdom, the wisdom born of love, that we too need to pray, as did that person in the first reading, who said, I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.

Sisters and brothers where exactly do we find our home? How willing and able are we to move if we have to?

Sunday, October 04, 2009

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Towards Completion

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16 or 10:2-12

Sisters and brothers, have you ever come across that bumper sticker with the message about marriage? You know the one I’m referring to. It goes something like this: No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished! Many of us laugh when we come across it. I’m one of those who do. We find it funny because, of course, there is a double meaning to the word finished.

The first meaning is the obvious romantic one. It’s the one that people often use at the beginning of intimate relationships. It’s the meaning that Tom Cruise was using in the feel-good movie Jerry Maguire. In a particularly popular scene, after Jerry tells Dorothy, his secretary, that he loves her, he immortalizes in movie history these marvelously mushy (some might say cheesy), yet amazingly effective words: you complete me. You complete me, he says. In other words, you finish me.

The other meaning is the very opposite of the first. If the first is often used at the birth of relationships, then the second is usually voiced when they die. It’s the meaning that Meryl Streep had in mind in that scene from the movie Kramer vs Kramer, where Streep’s character, Joanna, is in the process of leaving Ted, her workaholic husband. Ted desperately tries to coax Joanna back into their apartment. But she responds by pleading with her soon to be ex-husband in these words: Please don’t make me go in there… If you do, I swear, one day, next week, maybe next year, I don’t know, I’ll go right out the window. I’ll go right out the window. In other words, if I go back to our marriage, I’m finished.

Finished: one simple word with two very different meanings. And it is the context, the circumstances, that determine which one is intended. Jerry Maguire or Kramer vs Kramer. Romance or divorce. Completion or death.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

More than just a (hopefully) snazzy opening for a homily, this line also happens to highlight a connection that we find in our readings today, if we look hard enough. It is a connection between two questions: on the one hand, the question about the meaning of marriage and, on the other hand, the question regarding what it means to be a complete human being.

I say if we look hard enough because, at first glance, the main message of the gospel appears to be nothing more than the prohibition of divorce. And Jesus does indeed speak out against the Mosaic law that allowed a man to divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons, not least because, as scholars tell us, this same law could result in the abuse and exploitation of women. But Jesus’ response to the Pharisees takes the conversation to a whole different level. Like the Kramers in the movie, and others faced with the painful task of negotiating the death of a relationship, the Pharisees are concerned with the Law. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? And in many circumstances this can, of course, be a legitimate concern. For instance, even as we Catholics continue to uphold Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, Canon Law also admits certain narrow exceptions, such as the so-called Pauline Privilege. Also, there may be certain situations in which a civil divorce might well be a prudent course of action for a Catholic, provided that s/he does not remarry.

Even so, to remain with the Pharisees (and the Kramers) at the level of the law would give us too narrow a view of what our scripture readings are saying to us today. For, in the gospel, Jesus’ concern is not just with the ending of marriages, legal or otherwise, but also, more importantly, with the beginning of creation. Referring to the book of Genesis, Jesus invites us to consider not only what it tells us about the true meaning of marriage, but even beyond that, also about how one becomes a complete human being.

As we heard in our first reading, more than a simple contractual alliance, more than just a joint checking account, or a shared double bed, the true meaning of marriage is a profound union in which two people become one flesh. In a sense, they are no longer two but one – sharing a common origin, a new creation. And this process of union is also a process of completion. For notice the circumstances in which the first man and the first woman come together. Notice how, at the beginning of the reading, even though the man has already been created, he is not quite complete. God says: It is not good for the man to be alone. And notice too, how the completion of the man is brought about. The process is rather different from what Jerry Maguire might have had in mind. It is not a filling of some inner void in the man by some external creature. The attempt to do this with the animals fails. They are found to be unsuitable. They do not have enough in common with the man. He can only exert mastery over them, but no true partnership can be formed. No true intimacy is experienced. The man remains lonely. It is only when he falls into a deep sleep and gives up something of himself that success is achieved. Quite paradoxically, completion comes with self-donation, and with completion, communion. He gives up a rib and the two become one flesh.

It is at this point that we finally arrive at the crux of what the scriptures are saying to us today. For, as you well know, the early Fathers of the Church delighted in drawing parallels between the creation of the first man and the crucifixion of Christ. Just as the first man fell into a deep sleep in which the first woman was formed from his rib, so too did Christ fall into the sleep of death on the Cross, during which the Church was born from the blood and water that flowed out of his pierced side. Also, as the second reading reminds us, just as the first man became complete and came to share a new common origin with the first woman, by giving something of himself, so too was Christ made perfect through suffering, such that he who consecrates and those who are being consecrated – you and I – all have one origin.

It becomes clear then, sisters and brothers, that the scriptures have something important to say to us today regardless of whether or not we have ever been married or divorced, regardless of whether we are women or men. For, as baptized Christians, we are all members of the Church of Christ, the same Church that the Lord formed through his sacrifice on the Cross, the same Church that is destined to become his bride when he comes again. And, as members of this Church, whether married or single, separated or divorced, female or male, we are all called to perfection in Christ by imitating him in giving of ourselves to others.

No one is complete until they get married. And then they are finished!

Sisters and brothers, both as individual Christians and as Church, how might the Lord be drawing us further towards completion today?