St. Paul said Prophecy is one of the gifts of the Spirit. The recipient becomes one appointed by God to speak what God wants the people to hear. Our tendency is to think of a prophet as a seer, one who can foretell events. True, foretelling may be an aspect of prophesying in Scripture, but that is usually in terms of the consequences that will follow should the Prophet’s message be ignored.
None of the Major Prophets welcomed the calling or gift. Most of them were reluctant Prophets who yielded to God’s call only after pleading inadequacy for the task. Often they protested because they knew how other Prophets had suffered. They hesitated because they knew the message would be rejected. Some prayed to be left alone so that they could go on with their lives as they were living them before their encounter with God. But God persists until the reluctant prophet yields to God’s will and is sent forth.
This Sunday we hear Ezekiel in the first reading. The Spirit enters him and sets him on his feet. It becomes clear that Ezekiel is being sent to the Israelites who have turned their backs on the Covenant. These Israelites will not be an easy or receptive audience. The only assurance Ezekiel has is that the power of his message will convince his hearers that a Prophet has been in their midst. That doesn’t mean they will heed the message or much less, change their ways. The fact of the matter is that it is only in retrospect that a Prophet’s authenticity is confirmed as the people remember what he said and see the fruit of the message or lack their of at work in their lives. Sometimes they will lament: If only we had listened.
Jesus is a Prophet. Every word and every action is said or done in response to the will of the One who sent him. Over the last several weeks we have witnessed glimpses of his power. He calmed the storm; even the wind and the waves obeyed him. A woman had hemorrhaged for 12 years. In a moment of faith she touched the hem of his garment and was healed. A 12-year-old girl died only to be awakened by Jesus’ gentle touch and his invitation; Talitha koum. Little girl, arise. And she obeyed him.
Crowds gather wherever Jesus goes. They hang on his every word and they wonder. They know astonishment in response to spectacular events and teachings. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus returns to Nazareth, to his hometown, and to his family and friends. As he did at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus, on the Sabbath, enters the synagogue and begins to teach. He begins to prophesy. The audience is stunned, astonished by what they hear. Hear, perhaps, isn’t the right word because they do not receive the message, that is, taking it to heart. Knowing Jesus and his origins, knowing his family gets in the way. He’s a carpenter, after all, the son of a carpenter. They know his mother. They remember the boy because they watched him grow up. His relatives are ordinary people. Even though they have heard of the miracles and have marveled at the accounts, they are offended by what they now perceive to be pretentiousness.
Jesus said, A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house. He seems tortured by the rejection. It is clear that he had things in mind he wanted to accomplish there, great deeds similar to those he had performed elsewhere. Through them the Nazarenes could experience God’s love that comes through Jesus. But in order for those deeds to happen, there must be faith. Jesus must be heard and believed. That doesn’t happen. Mark tells us that a few sick people were cured by his touch. The implication is that so much more could have happened if only…. Jesus is amazed at their lack of faith.
Each time we sit beneath the Word we have the opportunity to listen. But do we hear? Does the Word proclaimed penetrate and lodge in our hearts? That might depend on how radical the changes in our lives Jesus’ message seems to demand. Certainly our excuse isn’t that we knew Jesus in his formative years; but it might be because we knew him in our own. By that I mean that for many of us, by now these proclamations have become twice told tales. We have heard them before this telling. Some of the passages we might even have committed to memory. Along the way we have adapted what we have heard and concluded that surely he didn’t mean what we heard. After all, who could ever do that? Surely Jesus didn’t mean to be taken seriously in those prophetic remarks. Those accommodations that we make dull the message and get in the way of the conversion Jesus longs to see. Isn’t it amazing how understandable are our greed, our sexism, our racism, how understandable our own sins are? Surely Jesus wasn’t addressing those. Was he?
How much of that response is attributable to lack of faith? Or, how much is attributable to our refusal to change?
Did you ever wonder if you were called to be a Prophet? Don’t be too hasty to protest or deny. Remember, you were baptized. That means that in the Waters you died to sin and put on Christ. God’s voice proclaimed: This is my beloved one in whom I take great delight. Listen. With your Baptism came priesthood as you began to live among a priestly people. Do you believe this? Imagine what would happen if we did!
I don’t know if people are giving Pope Francis the title of Prophet yet; but his prophetic messages seem to have reactions in people similar to those from other Prophets. Following the issuing of his Encyclical on the environment, one “talking head” proclaimed Francis to be the most dangerous man on the planet. Imagine! You might have heard some of the grumbling about his call for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. Perhaps you have read about some Churchmen who have rejected his urging that the shepherds fulfill their responsibility by shepherding among the sheep, even smelling like them. Who would be impressed by such a church as that? Don’t you wonder? And then there will be the questions raised by the Bishop of Rome’s call for the church to proclaim mercy and reconciliation.
There have been others among us who did take their Baptism, their call to be Prophet, seriously. Many of them we call saints. Some of them still await approval because of lingering questions about their practices. But that might be okay, because calling them saints can turn them into icons and make them distant. We might miss that it was because they took their relationship with Christ seriously that they dealt so forceful with the contemporary foes of the Good News they encountered. Dorothy Day. Thomas Merton. Dr. Tom Dooley. Archbishop Oscar Romero. These are ordinary people who did extraordinary things because they took the Gospel seriously. Some were sinners before they heard the Good News and took it to heart. And began to live it.
What we sometimes forget is, it is the living of the Gospel, loving as Jesus loved, and serving as Jesus served, that gives the message its power. You are called to be that prophet now, where you live, in your own neighborhood.
What if we believed it when we said, Speak, Lord, your servant is listening. What if then we acted on what we heard?
Blessed. The word is translated “happy.” That is important to remember as we ponder the teachings uttered on the mountaintop. To have heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and now to hear, “Blessed are those who sorrow,” must perplex those sitting in awe and trying to absorb the instructions that will for the bases of the New Way. There will have to be time and continued exposure as well as periods of contemplation to understand. The fact is, Jesus is initiating a New Creation and, in the process, he is turning the old order upside down. The danger is to think too soon that one knows what Jesus is talking about. If his words fit too easily into one’s scheme of things, one can be sure that that one has not felt the full challenge of what Jesus is calling his disciples to do and to be.
The first half of each of the Beatitudes, the “Blessed” part, must stun first hearers seated at Jesus’ feet in rapt attention. Some of those have already decided to throw their lot in with Jesus. Being a disciple will mean striving to walk in his ways. Disciples have begun to believe that through Jesus the Kingdom is coming, and with that Kingdom will come power and prosperity.
Others in the assembly still search, still wonder, and have not yet been able to make that decision. To this point they may well have been in desperate straits, wondering where they could turn to find meaning and direction in their lives. These will hang on every word, hoping to have what we would call an “aha” moment that will convince so that they too could become disciples and be part of his realm.
It is important to notice that at no time does Jesus make the decision to believe easy. Just the opposite is the case. It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And this before they had seen the end of the beginning.
So we hear, “Blessed are those who sorrow.” Another way of saying that is, “Happy are the sorrowing; happy are those who mourn.” What is Jesus breaking open for us? Through what new filter is he challenging us to view our life and our times?
Mourning is a frequent state of mind in the Hebrew Bible. The Prophets mourned over Israel’s infidelity as they watched the chosen people forsake the Law and the One God and began to follow Baal and the other gods of the gentiles among whom they lived. The Prophets sorrowed over the exploitation by the rich and the powerful of the poor, the orphans, and the widows. The people mourned as they watched the destruction of the Holy City, Jerusalem. They mourned as they were led into captivity. “By the trees of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered you, O Zion,” the psalm prays. Jesus will weep over the restored city because the people would not heed his call: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who stone the Prophets and kill those who are sent to you, how often I would have gathered you to myself, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” And he would grieve at the death of his friend, Lazarus.
Sorrowing, mourning, and grieving are parts of the human condition. No one who cares for others can live long before experiencing a situation that evokes those reactions. They will know what it means to be plunged into a long, dark night in the midst of which they will wonder if they will ever see the dawn of hope again in their lives. A kin to depression, it is in reality the long, dark night of the soul that gives rise to a terrible longing that only God can fill.
Some years ago, it was forbidden that photographers take pictures of flag-draped coffins of the war-dead as the bodies were returned to these shores for burial. If we did not see the reality we would not admit to the horror, and we would not have to mourn the fallen. Not recognizing the toll, it would seem all the more possible that soon we would be the victors, divinely appointed as we were in the bloody exchange. We need to see those coffins. We need to see the brokenhearted parents and spouses and children. To join in their mourning is salutary and can help in the change of perspective.
There is one way to make sure that you will not have to mourn and that is to choose not to love. If, however, you choose to love another, that one becomes one over whom one day you could mourn. Husband or wife may have to mourn and survive the spouse. Children mourn the death of their parents, albeit in due time when full lives have been lived. Sometimes a parent dies suddenly, far from a fullness of years, and grief intensifies. There is the terrible sorrow that comes when parents have to bury their children. Deaths of friends, the end of relationship, the failing health of those once strong bring us up short and challenge our core beliefs.
This year we have been confronted with the phenomenon of natural disaster. Tornadoes, floods, and violent storms have destroyed towns and washed away victims. Earthquakes level poorly constructed buildings entrapping some and killing many. People grieve individually and collectively. Sometimes we respond. Sometimes we look away.
Why does Jesus say, “Happy are those who mourn?” Precisely because of the emptiness that mourning brings. But mourning is not an end in itself. Those who mourn can be happy when mourning leads the mourner beyond the sorrowing state.
The whole Rite of Christian Burial acknowledges the reality of death and the sorrow it brings to the survivors. Those who come together as church to celebrate the ritual are embraced by the signs and symbols that speak much more of life than they do of death. The Rite begins even before Death has claimed the loved one. Family and friends, indeed the whole Church, all gather around to pray over and anoint with Holy Oil the one who is dying. Why? There is a belief that something more than what can be seen. There is a conviction in faith that death is not an end or a victor to anything more than life as it is lived in this world. Faith tells those gathered that this one will rise again in the Lord who conquered death forever.
The casket is draped with a funeral pall and the faithful recognize the baptismal garment that the now deceased one was clad in when s/he came out of the Waters, having died there to sin and everything that separates one from God. The baptized are identified with Christ and are destined to live in God’s love forever.
An Easter Candle stands burning by the coffin. That Candle was carried into the dark church in the course of the Easter Vigil to proclaim that Christ is alive in the Resurrection. Those gathered celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks and renewing the Lord’s dying and rising, even as they are reminded that those who eat this bread and drink from this cup will live forever, “and I will raise them up on the Last Day.” Death, where is your sting?
Some may think that there is something therapeutic in telling a mourner to “get over it and get on with your life.” I don’t agree. Mourning is a process. Weeping is part of it. In the process those who grieve let out terrible pain. Remember the state of mourning that Jesus says is happy. That results when the mourner experiences the darkness and the emptiness resulting from the loss of someone who was an integral part of one’s life, and accepts the fact that no one else can fill that void. The happiness comes from the conviction that God will wipe away every tear, embrace the mourner with love, and help him/her to live in hope that one day the one mourned and the mourner will be together in the Resurrection on the Last Day.
A challenge for believers is to be signs that inspire that hope. It is not enough to look on with pity. It is not enough to weep for those who suffer loss. Believers must respond with compassion and like the Eucharist they celebrate allow themselves to be broken and poured out in loving service of those who grieve. They must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn and support with love. Bringing meals in the initial days of sorrow is one response. Sitting with and listening to the one mourning and resisting the temptation to say, “I know just how you feel” is another. No two people mourn in the same way. And there is no time limit on the mourning process. The love and support of fellow believers will assist as the bereaved experience the grace that will empower them to go on.
St. James said, “If a brother or sister has noting to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, ‘Goodbye and good luck! Keep warm and well fed,’ but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that?” It is not enough to mourn for those who suffer loss as a result of natural disasters. We have the collective and individual responsibility to support them with more than our prayers and good wishes.
Pope Paul VI said that we do not have a right to excess when there are those who lack the essentials. That is an adaptation of the Beatitudes and can be very hard to hear. Faith in Jesus demands that we recognize those suffering to be our brothers and sisters.
(An aside: could the Holocaust have happened had the German people recognized their Jewish neighbors as brothers and sisters? The humanity of the Jews had to be denied in order to carry out the atrocities against them. Would the Ku Klux Klan have been able to wreck their havoc on their black brothers and sisters, hanging them from the nearest gibbet?
We are what we are, sons and daughters of our God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.)
A final consideration. Many of the saints prayed for the gift of tears. They prayed for the grace to see and understand their sins so that they could truly repent. This is not a prayer for the “grace” to wallow in self-pity, much less to see one’s sins as unforgivable. If the truth be known, most people find their own sins understandable. It is the sins of others, those sins they would never be tempted to commit, that are unforgivable. The gift of tears enables us to see the horror of our sins and to know that they are forgiven. Repentance means to turn away from sin, to mourn them, if you will, and to believe in the Good New, to live the Gospel practically as one who is forgiven.
So, we hear again: Blessed too are the sorrowing. We rejoice because we believe the sorrowing will be consoled by the God who loves unconditionally and forever those who allow God to light the darkness and fill the emptiness with which mourning threatens to break us. And we believe that Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
I prefer white vestments for funerals, rather than black. That rises from the conviction that God created human kind not for death but for life. The church ought never to tire proclaiming that. The first reading from the Book of Wisdom does when we hear: God did not make death…. For God formed humans to be imperishable.
You’ve heard the words uttered over you as the ashes were inscribed on your forehead: Remember, Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return. That is hard to translate into the introduction to the joyful season of Lent. The fear of death will induce conversion? There are more hopeful words that can be used for the signing: Turn away from sin and believe the Good News. We may be called to die to sin throughout the forty days, but that is so that we might enter more fully into the life of Easter.
The waters of Baptism are tomb and womb, remember. Baptism is a dying, but it is also a birth, a rising and entering into a life and communion that will never end. The Book of Wisdom reading tells us that God did not make death. No wonder the human heart cries out against death’s inevitability. God formed humans to be imperishable; the image of God’s own nature were humans made. With all the contrary signs, that may be difficult to believe, but that is the Good News Jesus proclaims. Believe it.
Over the years in ministering to dying children I have been inspired by their desire to have their parents understand what is happening to them. A lad proclaimed it clearly to his mother one morning at breakfast when he told her about his dream. She refused to hear the doctors’ predictions of impending death. The boy said it clearly: Jesus told me he is building me a house and it is nearly finished. Two weeks later those words comforted her at his funeral.
By the envy of the devil, death entered the world. After Genesis, the Hebrew Bible is the account of God’s desire to make that right again, to remove death’s dominance.
Jesus comes into the World to accomplish God’s will. I must do the will of the One who sent me! That is why Jesus’ message is Good News. Oh Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? Of course those questions can only be asked after Jesus dies and rises, leaving death vanquished.
This week’s Gospel is amazing. Of course, you might say, which Sunday’s Gospel isn’t amazing? True. But the wonder of this week’s proclamation is spellbinding. I suppose it is too bad the text is as long as it is. The attention span of many will be taxed to the point of tuning out and drifting off. With relief as they sit they will say: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. But again, they say that every Sunday. Will they have heard the Good News? Will their hearts have been touched?
The Gospel is the account of a miracle sandwiching a miracle. Each happens in response to faith. Jesus works constantly, preaching, teaching, and healing. Last week, after an exhausting day, Jesus got into the boat to go to the other side of the lake. In the course of the crossing a storm threatened and Jesus exerted command over the wind and the waves. Those with him in the boat asked in amazement, Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him? Following that episode there is an account of Jesus’ driving out the legion of demons from the possessed man, which we won’t hear. Then this Sunday’s Gospel begins with Jesus getting back into the boat and crossing the lake once more. As soon as he steps on shore the crowds envelop him again. This crowd wonders if Jesus might be the answer to their prayers, the fulfillment of the promise, the one who will make a difference in their lives.
The grief-stricken synagogue official, Jairus, a person of position, abases himself at Jesus’ feet and pleads for Jesus to come to Jairus’s home and save his 12-year-old daughter who is near death. Immediately Jesus sets out for Jairus’s home. And the crowds follow and press upon him.
Abruptly the focus shifts. A woman who has been suffering a hemorrhage for 12 years, as long as Jairus’s daughter has been alive, a woman who has exhausted her savings with abusive doctors, this woman approaches Jesus convinced that if she just touches the hem of his clothes she will be cured. The poor woman would know what it means to be shunned. Because she is hemorrhaging, she is thought to be unclean and anyone coming into contact with her would incur ritual impurity. The woman has been living a miserable existence all these years. No one pays heed to her. She has heard Jesus, or she has heard about him. In any event, she believes. With the hope that no one will notice her now and stop her, she stoops down, reaches out and touches Jesus’ cloak. In that instant her pain leaves her and her hemorrhage dries up. She is alive again.
See what Jesus does. The translation we hear softens his reaction. Closer to the meaning would be that Jesus, as he feels the power go out from him, whirled about as he asked, Who touched me? The question does not rise out of fear of contamination. After all, he has touched lepers. He has dined with sinners. The question might seem silly to those nearest him watching him be jostled by the crowds. They all had touched him. But someone touched him with faith and the healing power went out of him.
The woman, fearing the worst, afraid that she would be excoriated for her effrontery, approaches Jesus, admitting what she has done. He calls her Daughter and acknowledges that her faith has been rewarded. Here we see the difference between the crowds that flock around Jesus out of curiosity and the disciple who believes. The woman’s response is what Jesus longs for from the rest. The woman goes home in peace.
There is no greater challenge to faith than death. Immediately upon the heels of the woman’s healing comes news that Jairus’s daughter has died. How long did Jairus’s and Jesus’ eyes lock in Jairus’s shocked silence? How long was the moment Jairus had to decide and to hope against hope? Jesus challenges Jairus to hold on to faith and the promise. Do not be afraid; just have faith.
We know that what follows is a significant moment, a moment similar to the Transfiguration. Only Peter, James, and John are allowed to witness what happens after Jesus dismisses the professional mourners and quiets the din. Only the three, along with the girl’s mother and father, are in the room when Jesus touches the body, takes the girl by the hand and says, Talitha koum! Little girl, arise! Don’t miss that it is Jesus who commands and Death that departs, obeying just as the wind and the waves had done. Again, too, notice the response of the witnesses – utter astonishment. That is fine as far as it goes. But it is not the same thing as faith. That may be why Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen. That is exactly the order Jesus gave to Peter, James, and John on the way down the mountain after the transfiguration. In effect he is saying, don’t tell anyone until you understand the meaning. You won’t understand the meaning until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.
Jesus told them to give the little girl something to eat. That will prove that she is alive. Remember what Jesus asked in an early post-Resurrection appearance? Have you anything to eat?
Two miracles. The woman who suffered for 12 years but believed in Jesus’ power. The 12-year-old girl whose parents’ faith elicited from Jesus, Talitha koum.
I can’t help but think of Vice-President Biden as I write this. His first wife and a young daughter were killed in a car accident that almost took the lives of his two sons and another daughter. Now his son Beau, a survivor of that accident has died from brain cancer. It would seem to me that that would be more than enough to break the faith of a parent. Who could not be moved by the testimony to faith that went forth from the Beau’s funeral Mass? It seems obvious that the Vice-President believes that Jesus has conquered death, and that those who live and believe in Jesus will not die forever.
Take the Word, broken for us, and dare to believe. With that faith, incipient or well tried, and proceed from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist. Enter into Mystery and be transformed by the act of Thanksgiving. Having eaten and drunk of the Body and the Blood, dare to be sent to announce the Good News. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. And those who hear and are touched by your witness will know, as you believe, that Death’s power is no more.