HOMILY BY FR. ephrem arcement, o.s.b.
(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year A)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …” Thus begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.
These famous words about the contrast which existed between Paris and London at the time of the French Revolution seem to have universal applicability. Applied to the time just before the birth of Christ…it was, for the Jews, certainly thought to be the worst of times…it was a time of national crisis. Trying to rebuild after her experience of exile, she was never really able to find her feet and her identity, even survival, lay in the balance. But it was also the best of times…out of this crisis…in fact, the very pressure of this crisis became the catalyst for theological innovation and creativity as she began to reimagine her sacred tradition which, in turn, inspires a theological vision which would have been impossible otherwise.
There were two major manifestations of this theological imagination: what came to be known as apocalypticism and wisdom…both represented in today’s readings. Each of these responses to crisis is founded upon the faith that God, the sovereign Creator of all things, is just and good and has not neglected the world but is truly present to it, even if it seems like that Presence isn’t being experienced like we would like it to be. The Apocalyptic response said: hold on to your faith, take courage because God is about to intervene and save you from your misery. “For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven….” This is classic apocalyptic writing. Its focus is the future…the imminent coming of God to intervene and save and to take us, those of us who persevere in faith, to heaven, where there will be no more tears, suffering, or pain.
The Wisdom response is different. It’s not focused so much on the future as much as the present. Often personified in the feminine, Lady Wisdom is a hidden presence that isn’t experienced by being delivered from our crisis but is experienced and known in no other way but through our crisis. Israel, therefore, developed her Wisdom literature through many years of deep meditation on her existential plight of exile, return, and the disappointment she faced in never being able to regain her freedom.
We hear in the writings of Job and the Wisdom of Solomon, for instance, a sophisticated understanding of God that before this time would not have been possible. It’s no longer as simple as God blesses the good and curses the bad…it’s now God is present, quite mysteriously, right in the middle of the bad, teaching, wooing, transforming, slowly and patiently building character and making holy.
Apocalyptic is God’s external rescue mission. Wisdom is God’s internal overhaul mission. Apocalyptic emphasizes the Kingdom of God yet to come. Wisdom emphasizes the Kingdom of God already in our midst. Both are true and both are necessary for full Christian living. But it often seems that our focus becomes lopsided, with much more attention going to the Apocalyptic with the almost total neglect of Wisdom. Maybe the modern fascination with end time prophecies, Armageddon, and the incessant desire to escape suffering at any cost, which so characterizes our modern age, has something to do with it. But can it be that while we are obsessed with God’s apocalyptic rescue mission, that God is obsessed with trying to introduce us to Lady Wisdom? I think this is indeed the case.
When I think of this past century and what characterizes it most I think of two things: suffering on a massive scale and the uncontrollable advance of technology. Put together, the human spirit desperate for survival in such a context has tended to respond in one primary way: to escape. In a religious context, the apocalyptic hope remains valid. Thank God that good will one day definitively triumph over evil! But we, by and large, now find ourselves in a post-Christian, secular world. But the response to escape hasn’t changed. To escape is still the choice of the masses. This has produced what has been dubbed “mass society,” a society that has numbed itself so as not to feel the pain. Hence the rampant abuse of alcohol and drugs, escapism through entertainment, through illicit sexual encounters, through living vicariously through others, and, today, especially through social media. What’s left is only a semblance of a life—a life without freedom, without purpose, without passion. This is the human person caught in the cycles of sin—but God sees and has heard our cry. What God has done in Christ and what God continually seeks to do for us in Christ is not simply snatch us out of our misery—God came to us in Christ to show us how to live again.
The early Christians, in reflecting on the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, identified him as the Wisdom of God spoken of in the Old Testament. Like the hidden presence of the Creator’s hand holding all things together, Christ came in unassuming humility, the divine hidden in human nature. But tragically, most missed this divine visitation because they were looking only for apocalyptic power. What came, though, was Wisdom incarnate who taught us how to live—how to refuse the deadening forces of escapism and how to engage life with intensity and passion—how to live from the core of our being—with a kind of purpose and meaning that only comes through facing life with utter authenticity and wrestling with it till it give us its blessing. No amount of suffering could thwart his mission or compromise his total commitment to living. In fact, in the end, he turns suffering and the emptiness of death on its head and, by fully entering into it, uses it as the very catalyst to reveal the moment of greatest presence and power our world will ever know.
The human person has little control over the onslaught of suffering. Suffering is a given…and it has a hold on all of us…there’s no escaping it. But the human person does, thanks be to God, have the choice to really live, even amidst our suffering, instead of settling for an artificial substitute of life cultivated through evasion and escapism. What is needed is the life-giving encounter with the living God, already in our midst as Sophia, the hidden Christ, the Wisdom of God, known most powerfully through the struggles and crises of life.
Today’s readings exhort us to wake up and prepare ourselves with eager expectation for the coming of this hidden Presence of Life. It’s an exhortation to faith…to look straight at your pain and suffering…at whatever it is in your life that you so desperately want to go away…and to see within it the mysterious, hidden power of God offering you…not necessarily immediate release, but Presence…a real, life-giving Presence that will cause you to know something of God, something of life, impossible otherwise. This is why we come together each Sunday, to encounter this life-giving Wisdom in the gathered community, in the Sacred Scriptures, and especially in the encounter with the crucified and raised Lord of life in the Eucharist. See in this Eucharist the One who refused to evade suffering…but who rather saw in it an opportunity to live yet more passionately and offer the world the Presence that would save the masses from its meaninglessness. This Presence reaches through the centuries and comes to meet us now in whatever circumstance of life we find ourselves.
“She hastens to make herself known…whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed.”
“Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
HOMILY BY FR. AELRED, MONDAY, 26TH WEEK IN ORDINARY TIME
I am just finishing a book on the Comanche tribe that was active in Texas and Kansas in the 19th century. The author claims they were the most powerful and fiercest tribe in American history. Their society was nomadic, and their whole way of life was built on hunting and on war — both of which they were unusually good at.
In a hunter-warrior society, a child is of no immediate value. A child is a burden, needing defending and nurturing before growing into a resource, someone whose strength and knowledge begin to “contribute” to the hunt and to the battle.
But in the gospel today, Jesus gives a child as a mirror in which to see the truth of ourselves: we are, in fact, children — no matter how skilled we have become. We are utterly dependent and needy before God — in great part because we are sinners, totally incapable of managing what is most important for us, our own salvation.
Learning that we are needy and dependent is not an easy lesson to learn. We’re brought up to take responsibility for ourselves, to give more than take. If we find our neediness hard to learn, we’re in good company — the apostles found it hard too.
But we have a lifetime to study it. And that is what we do each time we celebrate the Eucharist: Jesus himself is fairly useless from a practical viewpoint. He practiced an elementary trade; he gathered a band of unspectacular followers, and, after a teaching career of just three years, he was executed. We proclaim his humiliation and death, suffered for our sake, by taking a little bread, a little wine — not enough to nourish us in an earthly sense, just enough to remind us that, with him, we must become little — even the least — to enter the Kingdom of God.