Some people, even some Catholics among them are not comfortable with the word catholic. They are much more comfortable with protestant or sectarian, at least in practice. You might have heard the grumbling when Pope Francis said that even atheists could get into heaven. God’s love is all embracing. To be catholic is to be universal. Like it or not, God is catholic. Granted, that might not seem clear in the early books of Hebrew Scripture when God is busy about calling and forming the Jews as a people set apart as God’s own. Many are the mandates of separatism that can quickly translate into elitism. Ritual impurity could be incurred through mere contact with Gentiles. Living in fidelity to God’s Law results in a relationship between the Jews and God that will make all the other nations marvel.
Then come proclamations of the catholic call such as that found in today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. That is especially true if you read the skipped verses of the text that include even the formally and formerly excluded eunuchs with the foreigners. Through Isaiah, the Lord invites all of them to enter into this relationship of love celebrated in formal worship and through lives lived in fidelity to the Covenant. The burnt offerings and sacrifices of these once unclean will be acceptable on God’s altar. My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Jesus had to change his mind; or rather, he had to grow in the understanding of what the Father had sent him to do. There is no shortage of quotes in the early stages of Jesus’ ministry that state clearly that he knew that he was sent for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. In proclaiming the Good News, his initial intent is to restore fervor to the faith life of the Jews. At the start, Jesus would have been careful about incurring ritual impurity, that is, rendering himself unable to enter into temple worship. That impurity could happen through mere contact with foreigners or any other class of people declared unclean. Hear tax collectors, lepers, and sinners.
Then comes the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel. Translate Canaanite foreigner, and foreigner, unclean and you will see the power in their exchange. The woman comes to Jesus in the midst of a crowd and in desperation. Her daughter is tormented by a demon. It doesn’t matter whether this refers to the daughter’s being possessed by the devil or her being ravished by some other disease. In the mother’s eyes the situation is catastrophic.
The woman is not self-conscious, much less is she concerned by what her neighbors will think of her when she cries out to get Jesus’ attention as she informs him of her plight. It should be painful to hear that Jesus pays her no heed even as she persists. She irritates the disciples who seem to feel no inclination to respond to her concerns. They want Jesus to get rid of her, putting it crassly, to get her to shut up. That’s how we would say it today. Remember the situation the disciples discerned prior to the feeding of the 5000? They were confronted by a great need then and again their request was that Jesus send the crowd away so their needs could be met elsewhere and by themselves. This time, however, Jesus doesn’t tell them to do something themselves. Ignoring the woman, Jesus states that his call is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But the woman persists and calls him Lord. Then she adds: please help me!
What follows is the most hurtful reply Jesus makes in all of the Gospels. It is cruel. And again, were we not so familiar with the text, we would wince. It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs. Hear what he is calling her. But the woman is undismayed and turns the insult to her own advantage, reminding Jesus that even if she is a dog, dogs get the leftovers from their masters’ tables. Wow! And, in effect, that is what Jesus says, too. He recognizes that in this foreigner he has found the faith response that he has been searching for from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And Jesus assures this giant of faith that she is not a dog but a woman and the crumb she seeks has been given to her. Her daughter is healed.
This becomes a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From here on out his preaching becomes catholic. From this point on he will speak to tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and Canaanites. He will even share meals with them, welcoming sinners and eating with them. Jesus begins to reflect the catholicity of God’s love. That should be a comfort to most of us who are Gentiles. If his vision had remained unchanged despite the Canaanite woman’s plea, we would be outside the pale of those called to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Dare I ask you to reflect on how catholic you are? Before you answer, think a moment. Whom do you think should be called to the table? Or, who should be excluded? A great scandal on the Church’s part in various ages including our own is the willingness to exclude. It is not the prerogative of any minister of Eucharist to refuse Communion to anyone who presents him/herself in the Communion Procession. I hope we cringe when we remember how recently in our history Catholic churches were segregated and not just in the south. Harlem had that experience too. Move beyond racism to any other classifications into which people are sorted. Would you stand in Communion with gays, lesbians and transsexuals? With conservatives or liberals, depending on which side of the aisle you see yourself?
Here’s something you might not think about. How accessible is the worship space to the disabled? Could a wheelchair user proclaim from the Ambo? Could a deaf person hear the proclamation of the word? Is there a signer to ensure that the deaf hear? Could someone with cerebral palsy usher or be a greeter?
Why do you think that Pope Francis is calling for a poorer church to serve the poor? Why is he living in a simple space and inviting street people to breakfast with him? The feet he washed on Holy Thursday scandalized some. Why do you think Francis is urging the clergy to minister among the people and even smell like them? He said it well when he told the people that he is not over them, but along side them, equal with them as they are with him.
The challenge today remains the same as it has been from the beginning. Love. Love one another as I have loved you. Love with a love that expresses itself in service. Love with a love that is universal. It is that love that brings the Kingdom Jesus promised, the kingdom for whose coming we pray each time we say: Our Father.
A theophany is an event during which God’s presence is revealed. Think of Moses’s experience with the Burning Bush. Think of all those other encounters combined that climaxed in the Israelites march out of slavery in the desert’s freedom. There they would be formed into a people. Throughout their desert sojourn God would be before the Israelites, visible in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God’s presence would be constant.
What did God intend for the Israelites? Let me be your God and you will be my people. If the Israelites were to allow that to happen, all other people would marvel and say that no other people has such a relationship with their gods as Israel has with G-O-D. How would others recognize this marvelous relationship? Israel would live by the Covenant, the Law Yahweh gave to Moses on Sinai.
We think of the Law in terms of the Decalogue. The fact is, the fullness of the Law is summed up in two commandments: Love God with your entire being, and, Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Jesus said that in these two the whole Law is contained and the Prophets as well. Lived to perfection, the result would be a theophany. Do you hear in this reality, Pope Francis telling the Church that it is all about love?
All of Scripture is a theophany. God’s love song begins at the dawn of creation and concludes with Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, seated at God’s right hand, singing a hymn to Baptism and promising to return on the Last Day. Scripture is an epode encouraging a people who know suffering to live in hope and so come to share in the glory.
Imagine what it would be like were you to see God, to have your own theophany? The first temptation might be to imagine the possibilities brought forth by the computer-generated sights and sounds, the spectacle created as God outdoes anything previously seen on film. The fact is, attempts to render such moments tend to be ludicrous at best, saccharine at worst and ultimately unsatisfying. Just think of Cecil B. DeMille’s, The Ten Commandments and Moses leading the people through the parted Red Sea. Ugh.
Elijah is on a quest for a theophany in the first reading. He is heavily burdened. His world is collapsing. The people to whom he had been sent as prophet have turned against God’s ways and now want to kill Elijah. He flees to Mount Horeb (Sinai) and takes shelter in a cave. The Lord says to Elijah: Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by. Elijah does as he is told. He experiences a violent wind, an earthquake, and a forest fire in rapid succession. He thought each of these would prove to be his theophany. But, as the reading says, God was not in any of them. When Elijah hears the sound of a zephyr, he hides his face in his cloak and goes and stands at the entrance of the cave, knowing he is in the presence of God.
Give the weather phenomena experienced around the world recently, I doubt people are inclined to think of earthquakes and hurricanes and forest fires as Theophanous, unless, of course, blaming God or seeing God’s judgment in such calamities makes them theophany.
God is in the whisper, the sound of the gentle breeze. Think of those moments when you were transported by the sound of a wren’s song on the evening air; the brilliance of the palette used to paint the wonder in the sky to accompany the sun’s setting; the cooing of a baby suckling at its mother’s breast. It is in times of high chaos that we need to be open, to stand in awe and in silence lest we miss the enveloping presence of the God who loved us into creation and will not be satisfied until we are safely with God in the glory that is eternal.
There is a moment at the end of the movie of a decade or two ago, The Thin Red Line, that in my estimation is the finest capturing of a theophany ever to be experience in film. After the havoc of war and the hundreds of lives lost, the camera focuses on the beach and the lapping waves. There, too, is a coconut lying on the beach. From its split husk rises a green sprout that is resurrection and life. Listen to God’s whisper.
Last week, remember, we were present when Jesus took the few loaves and the couple of fish, gave thanks, blessed, broke, and distributed the loaves in order to feed the five thousand men, not counting the women and the children. That was a theophany. Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled that promised when the day of the Lord comes the poor will be fed with abundance and have the Good News announced to them. This week’s Gospel takes up immediately following that moment. Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat and then dismisses the crowds. Exhausted, Jesus climbs a mountain alone to pray and recover. He has poured himself out in love. Prayer is his conversation with God. Silence is its shroud.
All four Gospels contain accounts of Jesus’ coming to the disciples, terrified as they bob and weave through the waves in the storm-tossed boat. It is night as the winds rage. The disciples gape at the first sighting of the figure coming toward them and think they are seeing a ghost approaching them across the water. Jesus speaks: Take courage. It is I! Only in Matthew’s Gospel does Peter ask for proof by urging Jesus to command Peter to walk on the water himself. Jesus voices the command: Come! Peter obeys and steps out of the boat. All goes well until he becomes distracted from Jesus and concentrates instead on the winds and the waves. Peter sinks. But Jesus stretches out his hand to Peter and helps him regain his footing. For how long after that moment did Jesus’ words to Peter ring in his ears: O you of little faith, why did you doubt?
It is one thing to imagine you are in that boat in the midst of that storm. That is so as you hear this Gospel proclaimed. Much more important is to remember times when you were personally storm tossed, times when you felt yourself being swamped by events surrounding you. Do not fail to see as well the horrific events of our times, those earthquakes, storms, and fires, the furies of war and famine and disease. What this pericope implores us to remember is that ultimately none of these terrors will destroy us.
With the boat as an image of the church, we must remember that persecution will not end the church from the outside and neither will division from within. None of the evils – not even death – will triumph unless we forget Jesus. If you are devastated by the death of a loved one, be supported in your grief remembering that Jesus, the resurrection and the life, wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. But death was not the victor. If it is your own failing health that terrifies you, again, remember Jesus whose dying and rising destroyed death’s finality. If it is your own vilification that threatens to break you, think of Jesus standing in silence before his accusers. Remember, the Father raised him up. In the end, Jesus will be your vindication.
There are the catastrophes and the panoply of suffering they reveal. Last week’s Gospel statement comes to mind. In the presence of the hungering multitude, all Jesus has to offer are five loaves and two fish, all that the disciples had to offer. The point is, if we are willing to share our all, Jesus, who comes to us in the midst of the storm, the midst of the persecution, the grief, the trauma and the vilification, can take that little bit we offer and make it more than enough. We have to keep our eyes fixed on him and repeat the homage that concludes this Gospel and the Theophany it contains: Truly, you are the Son of God.
We will hear that declaration about Jesus again near the end of Matthew’s Gospel when the Centurion voices it as he looks on Jesus nailed to the cross. That was the Centurion’s theophany moment.
PS. Lately I have been thinking and praying about the horrid situation at the United States/ Mexico border, and the plight of the children sent out of apparently horrid situations with the hope their children will find a new and safer life in our country. I hear the demands for their being deported and sent back to where they came from. And I think of the poem I memorized as a child that is etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty: Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, send these, the homeless, tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Apparently not in the present situation.
In Hebrew Scripture and in New Testament texts, times of great sorrow and near despair give rise to odes urging hope and pointing to fulfillment. The scripture readings for this Sunday are cases in point. Hear the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading: All you who are thirsty, come to the water. You, who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! This is a universal invitation, promising fulfillment that goes out to a broken people in time of desolation late in the Babylonian Captivity. Hear the invitation to repentance. That should not surprise. After all, in Isaiah’s thinking, infidelity may have occasioned the present state of collapse. Israel’s strength rose and fell like a tide to the moon of their fidelity to God.
In the second reading, Paul writes to Jews and Gentiles about their common reason for hope – their Baptism and faith in Christ. Perhaps there are all sorts of things physical and spiritual to fear; but (w)hat will separate us from the love of Christ? At the end of his long list of possible separators, and most of them are daunting, Paul’s conclusion is that not even the worst thing imaginable can separate us. In other words, those who are faithful have nothing to fear – not even death. The love of God in Christ Jesus is stronger than death. The proof of that is Christ’s resurrection. Paul wrote the Letter to the Romans to a people whose faith in Christ was becoming illegal. An age of persecution dawned. We have noted before how often in history periods of persecution give evidence of fervor in faith. Isn’t it interesting, too, that during those same times of persecution, the number of new believers soared?
In the Gospel, Jesus mourns the death of John the Baptist. He longs to be alone with his sorrow and so gets into a boat to set off for a deserted place. Upon his arrival there he is met by crowds of people who suffer and are desperate in their search for him. Jesus’ response is a model for all who would minister. His heart is moved with pity. Pity is a weak word here. Better would be to call his response to them compassion. Compassion means to enter into another’s suffering, to suffer with that one. Jesus enters into the crowd’s suffering. That is what all who minister in Jesus’ name are called to do – suffer with even as they are charged with bringing comfort and relief. Certainly you have heard the echo of this in Pope Francis’s preaching. That’s what he means by a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. That’s what he means by serving in the midst of the people, even to the point of smelling like them. You cannot be aloof in ministry. Jesus couldn’t be. You can’t be repulsed because your hands get dirty and your shirt bloodstained. Jesus wasn’t. That’s how close you have to get to those who serve. And you might weep.
Whenever there is mention of Jesus getting into a boat with his disciples we have an image of the Church. So it is here. Remember that. Sometimes the task of meeting others’ needs seems overwhelming. Think of the different responses to the children fleeing across the border of Mexico into what they hope will be open arms of comfort and support. What are they finding? By the responses of some it seems clear that the Church’s Social Gospel has fallen on deaf ears, even on the ears of professed Catholics.
The disciples size up the crowd waiting and conclude there are too many to fee, too many demands being made, too much grief. The weary disciples want to send the crowds away because the feel they cannot meet all these needs. Jesus is the wise teacher. He asks for an assessment of the problem. That is an invitation to reconsider. Sure that Jesus will be sympathetic to the perceived plight of the disciples, they tell him in a nutshell, there are too many hungry people. There is not enough for all of them to have even a morsel. The disciples want the hungry sent away so that they can shop for food for themselves. Sounds like the response the children at the borders are hearing. The disciples are stunned by what Jesus says. Rather than sympathizing with their anxiety he says: You give them some food yourselves. In other words, the responsibility is yours.
Five thousand men, not counting the women and children! Would adding the women and children into the total raise the number in the throng to ten or twelve thousand? The specific number doesn’t matter. It is a sizable crowd. You give them some food yourselves. But the disciples say: Five loaves and two fish are all we have here. Again the master teacher directs the moment. Bring them (the loaves and the fish) to me. The point to recognize is that even when all the resources available seem inadequate before the mammoth task, even when you feel like you are in over your head, the situation is not hopeless. Paul said it in the second reading: In all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.
Still, it must be a joint effort. The disciples offer the little they have. Jesus takes it and suddenly there is more than enough. So it must always be with the Church. The Church as the Body of Christ must be universal in her love for and unqualified in welcoming the poor and the hungry, the naked and the imprisoned, and all those whose dignity and worth are compromised by the plight in which they find themselves. The task, as in those needing to be served can be overwhelming. The resources may seem so limited in comparison to the gargantuan challenge. Even so, Jesus will always say: You give them some food yourselves!
The feeding of the 5000 is a Eucharistic moment that foreshadows the Eucharistic action at the Last Supper. Don’t miss the language: Taking the few loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples who in turn gave them to the crowd. Blessed the bread. Broke the bread. Gave the bread. (Interesting that there is no mention of the fish here.) These are key words in every Eucharist and we have the significant actions here. Every Eucharist convokes an assembly burdened with various needs, carrying various crosses, aware of being sinners needing conversion and forgiveness. They gather with Jesus at the Table of the Word, yearning to nosh on every word that comes from his mouth. They gather with Jesus at the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks to God for the blessing that comes to them in, with, and through Jesus. They come to share in the meal. Exercising the Priesthood of the Baptized, they come marvelously united with Jesus, one with him and with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The transformation begins when Jesus again takes bread, says the blessing, breaks the bread and gives it to them saying: Take and eat. This is my body which is given for you. Now, you do this in my memory. A lot is contained in that word memory. The word means more than calling to mind. To remember, in the mind of the Hebrews, is to make present the moment, to make present what is remembered.
Jesus is saying that when the Assembly does this action he is present. Transformed by that action and strengthened by the shared meal, there are more than enough resources to meet the task as long as the Assembly, the Body of Christ, is willing to go forth blessed to be broken and distributed and continue in that action until all are fed.
In addition to the growing tension in the situation at the Mexican and United States border, in the news tonight there will be other stories of people in anguish, suffering and praying for deliverance and relief. We may pray and wring our hands and weep at the plight of the many as we conclude that the need far exceeds the resources at hand. And we are sure to wince as we hear Jesus say: give them something to eat yourselves.
Upon whose strength and transforming power will we rely to get the job done?
Let us not be negative as we conclude this reflection. You know as well as I do, that in every disaster there are first responders, people who immediately reach out, leave their own homes and rush to do what they can to relieve the sufferings of those in the aftermath of tornadoes, floods, forest fires and earthquakes. When asked why they do what they do, their response inevitably is something to the effect of, why wouldn’t we? We are family. And so we are, all of us. That’s seeing through the eyes of faith. Seeing, and believing.