Sunday, July 07, 2024

A Tale of Two Trajectories

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 122 (123); 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6

Picture: By Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

My dear friends, have you ever had trouble standing up? Recently someone shared one such experience with me. After casually bending over to feed his dog, this person was shocked to find that he could not straighten up… He had thrown out his back… I think I’d be shocked too, if the same thing were to happen to me. Shocked, because the power to stand upright is something I take too much for granted. I know, of course, that most of us acquire this power near the beginning of our lives, only to lose it as we approach the end. And I also know that this is true not just physically, but also psychologically, and socially. Although we may devote much of our time to acquiring the ability to make up our own minds, to regulate our own feelings, to stand on our own two feet, this independence will eventually come to an end. Physically, psychologically and socially, our lives follow a similar trajectory to that of a rocket. What goes up must eventually come back down. I know this. But I too easily allow myself to forget it. Hence my shock, whenever something happens that brings me crashing back to earth. Not just a bad back, but any sudden misfortune, any unexpected trial.

Which is why it’s good to recall that, in addition to the physical, psychological, and social, there’s also a spiritual approach to standing upright. What does it look like, and how do we follow it? These are the questions our scriptures help us to ponder today. The first reading begins by telling us that, when the Spirit of God enters Ezekiel, the prophet is given the power to stand upright before God. And not just before God, but also before the rebellious people of Israel. God sends Ezekiel to proclaim God’s message to them, even though they will reject it. God wants them to know there is a prophet among them. But that’s not all. Two verses before our reading begins, we’re told that Ezekiel’s initial reaction to the sight of God’s glory, is to fall on his face. Which indicates that, if the prophet receives the power to stand up, it’s likely because he first knows how to bow down. Spiritual uprightness follows the trajectory not of a rocket, but of the poor servant and slave in the psalm. Instead of climbing up, only to fall back down, they humbly bow down, to be mercifully lifted up.

We find something similar in the gospel. Which, at first glance, seems to offer us nothing more than an unsettling, even scandalising, image of a powerless Jesus. Due to the stubborn disbelief of his former neighbours–their lack of faith–the Lord is unable to perform any miracle–any work of power–in his own hometown. And yet, isn’t Jesus exercising the same spiritual power that Ezekiel received in the first reading? Rather than watering down his words and actions to appease his audience, to gain their approval, Jesus remains true to God’s message. In the face of suspicion and rejection, he is able to stand upright before both his faithful God, as well as the faithless people. And he will keep standing upright, even when rejection escalates to persecution, and then to condemnation. Humbly he submits himself to the trajectory of a suffering servant, even to the point of accepting death on a cross. Only to be raised up on the third day. Bringing with him, the rest of creation, including all those brave enough to follow in his steps. As the opening prayer reminds us, in the abasement of (the) Son, (God) has raised up a fallen world…

Isn’t this why, in the second reading, St Paul can speak of making his weaknesses his special boast? Although he prays earnestly for God to remove the mysterious thorn in (his) flesh, Paul is still willing to accept it, to submit to it, along with all the other trials he has to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Like Ezekiel and Jesus before him, Paul follows the trajectory of a servant. He first learns to humbly bow down, in order to be mercifully raised up by the Lord. He realises that, in his own weakness, the power of Christ becomes more effective. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.

And isn’t this the same Mystery to which we are being conformed, whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist? We recall the trajectory of Christ’s Life and Death and Resurrection, in order to follow more faithfully in his steps. Learning to treat our own trials as opportunities to humbly bow down before the Lord, so that God might mercifully raise us up. Receiving the power not just to stand upright before our God and our world, but also, as much as we are able, to reach out and to help raise up those bowed down by the burdens of life. Especially now, when our local society is finally being encouraged to embrace wider definitions of success, perhaps it's an opportune moment for us Christians to find ever more creative and intentional ways to follow our own God-given trajectory for standing upright.

Sisters and brothers, even if we may be shocked when we are suddenly bowed down by life, how might God be using such trials to teach us to follow Christ more closely today?

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